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What’s the Difference Between a Dust Mask and a Respirator – and When do you Need Them?

The difference between a respirator and a dust mask


It’s summertime, which means it’s construction season. Common construction tasks such as painting, carpentry, mixing cement, and welding all involve some level of exposure to particulates. What kind of respiratory protection do you need – and how do you know what works best for you?

Dust Masks – for Cleaning, Construction, and More

You’ve seen dust masks before. In their simplest configuration, they take the form of a cloth pad, molded to the shape of a wearer’s face with a thin metal strip running across the bridge of the nose. They’re secured to the wearer’s head with one or more elastic straps.

Dust masks are mainly intended to guard against nuisance materials – yes, including dust as the name suggests, but also particles created by light to moderate construction work. Use a dust mask during sanding, hammering, cutting wood, and any other activity that’s likely to create small particles that you wouldn’t want to breathe in.

Many dust masks are advertised as being NIOSH N95 compliant. This means that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has certified that a particular filter, when used correctly, can screen out 95% of airborne particles. Notably, N95-rated devices cannot screen out oil-based particulates. To protect against these and other dangerous chemicals, you’ll need a respirator.

Respirators – Protect Your Lungs Against Harsh Chemicals

Compared to a dust mask, a respirator is an obviously heavy-duty piece of equipment. Visually, it’s defined by thick nylon straps that go around the back of the wearer’s head, a rubber gasket that fits over their mouth and nose, and two large filtration cartridges. The idea of a respirator is to create an airtight seal over the wearer’s face and filter every particle of air that goes into their lungs.

Respirators are designed to protect the wearer against particles that may threaten short- or long-term damage to their health. This includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) created by spray paint, vapors from solvents such as epoxy, and fumes emitted by metal during welding. Different respirators may be necessary for different applications – a respirator that protects against spray paint may be useless against welding fumes. For some applications, it may even be necessary to purchase a powered respirator with a self-contained air supply.

When to Use a Dusk Mask, and When to Use a Respirator

For hobbyists and weekend craftsmen, a disposable dust mask may represent everything you need to complete a project safely – but there are exceptions. Spray paint, as previously mentioned, contains VOCs that can poison a user who inhales them for too long. A cloth dust mask won’t prevent inhalation – only a respirator will. As a rule of thumb, any project involving an application of hazardous chemicals will require a respirator. These chemical products should contain a safety data sheet which mandates respirator use.

When respirator usage is called for, it is not enough simply to wear it – it must be worn correctly. There are two simple tests if a respirator (specifically a half mask respirator) fits correctly. The first is a positive pressure test, conducted by blocking the exhalation valve of the respirator and blowing outward. If the facepiece bulges out without leaking, the respirator fits. A negative pressure test is conducted by blocking the respirator cartridges and inhaling. If the facepiece collapses slightly without leaking, the respirator fits.

Using a respirator may seem inconvenient but using one correctly can literally be lifesaving. There are a number of options that individuals may find more comfortable and better-fitting. Full face respirators for example, or loose-fitting powered respirators, may be much more comfortable and better-fitting for those with beards. Don’t be afraid to shop around! After all, it could end up being the most important piece of protective equipment you own.

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