Similar to regular PPE, Respiratory Protective Equipment (or RPE for short) is any facial protective equipment that is specifically designed to protect an individual’s airways from harmful airborne contaminants.

However, in order to rightfully delegate your employees this PPE, not only must you understand the correct respiratory protection ratings for your environment, you must also ensure it is fit for each individual use via a face fit test.

What is a Face Fit Test?

A Face Fit Test is a certified practice and precaution by HSE (Health and Safety Executive) to ensure that Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) is able to provide, at the very least, adequate protection for every employee that requires it.

It checks that the mask or respirator fits the employee's face correctly, leaving no leaks where contaminated air can get through unfiltered. This allows the user to choose the correct size of mask for their face.

Face Fit Testing must be carried out before the respirator or face mask is worn in a contaminated environment with the findings documented.

Why Is Face Fit Testing Important?

Image Credit: Alpha Solway

Not a day goes by without somebody dying prematurely from a work related lung disease.

My maternal grandfather died of lung cancer caused by his young days working in a cement factory in Yorkshire. His employment was way before safeguards for worker's health and safety were put into practice and enshrined in law. Had he had access to the same training and safety products we all have nowadays, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have lived for longer.

Having access to dust masks or other respiratory protection has changed the life outlook for millions of workers worldwide, but we still need to do better by ensuring all protection actually protects. A poorly fitting respirator is no respirator at all.

Hence, we face fit test to ensure the correct size and type of mask is made available to all works.

Who Can Carry Out a Face Fit Test?

Under UK Legislation, a face fit test has to be conducted by a competent person.

A competent person is defined as someone who is appropriately trained, qualified and experience in doing so. This qualification can be achieved and recognised by accreditation from the Fit2Fit scheme, which was introduced by The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) with support from the HSE.

When Should I Do a Fit Test?

A Fit Test should be carried out in the very initial stages of the buying process to ensure that the item of workwear is fit for purpose and in accordance with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002.

Employers, like yourself, need to ensure all PPE is in agreement with these regulations by documenting and measuring appropriate risk assessment, control of exposure, health surveillance and incident planning.

In other words, a respirator face fit test is necessary if dust masks or respiration is required.

It is important to note, that any breathing apparatus selected, must be identical to that carried out within the respirator fit test. This concerns the make, model, type, and size, which is specific to each employee.

How Do I Do a Respirator Fit Test?

Once you have selected the protective face mask or respirator you wish to order and have a competent individual to carry out the test, it is time to know how to do one. The Fit Test itself is something that has to be well documented with the necessary details which are retained for inspection.

A Fit Test can be split into two types: a Qualitative Fit Test (QLFT), and a Quantitative Fit Test (QNFT).

Qualitative Fit Test (QLFT)

A qualitative fit test may only be used to fit test:

  • Air Purifying Respirators that are used in negative pressure. This fit test is on the basis that they will be used in atmospheres where the potential hazard is 10 times the permissible exposure limit (PEL).
  • Tight fit face protection with powered and atmosphere-supplying respirators.

The QLFT results are split into either Pass or Fail depending on the subject’s senses/reactions to the following test agents:

  • Isoamyl acetate (simulates a banana smell); only for testing respirators that utilise organic vapor cartridges.
  • Saccharin (simulates a sweet taste); can test respirators with a particulate filter of any class.
  • Bitrex (simulates a bitter taste); can test respirators with particulate filters of any class.
  • Irritant Smoke (prompts a cough reflex); only for testing respirators with level 100 particulate filters.

If any of the above test agents are detected by the subject, then the respirator will not comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (CoSHH).

In order to fairly test the above agents, the following 7 exercises must be conducted for 1 minute each. The exercises are as follows:

  • Normal Breathing (1 minute)
  • Deep Breathing (1 minute)
  • Moving head side to side (1 minute)
  • Moving head up and down (1 minute)
  • Bending over, or jogging on the spot - if the apparatus does not allow bending at the waist (1 minute)
  • Talking (1 minute)
  • Normal Breathing Again (1 minute)

Quantitative Fit Test (QNFT)

The more common of the two is the Quantitative Fit Test (QNFT) which is used to fit-test any tight-fitting respirator. It mainly involves using equipment to measure the leakage around the face seal of the breathing apparatus. This test will produce a numerical result defined as a “fit factor” which can be produced from any of the following 3 test protocols:

  • Generated Aerosol: uses a non-hazardous aerosol which is generated within the test chamber (i.e. corn oil).
  • Condensation nuclei counter (CNC): uses an ambient aerosol and does not require a test chamber to be used.
  • Controlled negative pressure (CNP): uses a test that creates a vacuum by temporarily cutting off air/oxygen.

The Quantitative Fit Test uses the same 7 exercises that the Qualitative Fit Test uses with the addition of a ‘grimace’ test which involves the subject smiling or frowning for 15 seconds to test the integrity of the facial seal.

Whilst the Qualitative Fit Test is Pass or Fail, the Quantitative Fit Test is graded on achieving a minimum threshold. The threshold for half-mask respirators is a minimum fit factor of 100, whereas for full-mask respirators it is 500.

How Do I Document a Face Fit Test?

It is important to record any Face Fit Tests you do so that you can prove your PPE is in compliance with UK legislation, should it ever come into question.

The test must be recorded by accredited personnel and concerns the following measures taking place:

Document the following:

  • Name of the person tested
  • Make, model and size of the facepiece
  • Whether the wearer’s own mask, company pool mask or a fit test service’s mask was used
  • The test exercises performed during the test
  • Fit test method used so either
  • Qualitative for filtering facepieces (FFPs, disposable masks) and half masks
  • Quantitative for FFPs (disposable masks), half and full face masks Measured fit factor values for each test
  • Pass Level used
  • Date of the test
  • Details of the person carrying out the fit test Retain recordings per inspection.

Ensure all employees that are required to wear a respiratory face mask are fit to do so in regards to personal health by completing a medical evaluation.

Is that everything?

By carrying out the respirator fit test you are ensuring that the face protection you are ordering for each employee is fit for purpose and in accordance with UK legislation.

It is your duty as an employer to remind your employees that they must conduct checks on their breathing apparatus for their own safety. The face protection should be a firm and tight fit to the employees face which should not move when in motion and the employees should perform a seal check each time they put on the respirator.

Employees can either perform a positive-pressure check or negative-pressure check depending on their environment.

Positive Pressure

Your employees must block the exhalation valve on a half or full facepiece respirator, or covering the respirator’s surface using your hands, before breathing out. If pressure builds up and is felt within the mask, then the seal is fit and appropriate for workplace use. 

Negative Pressure

Your employees must block the intake valve on a half or full facepiece respirator, or cover the respirator’s surface using your hands before breathing in. If no air enters, then the seal is fit and appropriate for workplace use.

It is important to maintain these checks prior to every use as a precaution for any deteriorating facepiece seals.

Be Aware of These Considerations

It is important that when both you and your employees perform their fit tests, that facial hair is kept to an absolute minimum so that results remain accurate and reliable. Any slight facial hair between the seal and the employee’s face can distort test results and lead to potentially unsafe facial equipment by dampening the seal’s effectiveness.

Just because a respirator fits one person, it does not mean it will fit everyone. Similarly, just because one size of one type of respirator fits, it does not mean that all respirators of the same size will fit. The point of Face Fit Testing is to determine the correct size and shape of respirator for each individual worker.

Image of a dust mask fitting poster
Image credit: Alpha Solway

Face Fit Testing also gives some training to the wearer on how to fit their respiration protection effectively and carry out quick tests each time they use it. This improves the function of the mask and improves employee's responsibility for their own health and safety.