by Jake Poinier

BREATHE-EASIERIt’s encouraging to know that today’s water-based paints are much safer, and that even solvent-based paints contain less-hazardous solvents than they did a decade ago. Nonetheless, painters are still exposed to a variety of pigments, fillers, resins, solvents and additives—not to mention materials such as mold, lead and asbestos—when doing scraping, sanding, and other prep work.

As a result, painters and painting contractors should always take the appropriate safety precautions. Just as you train and structure your job site to prevent falls, you need to protect yourself against the hidden, long-term harm that can come from breathing in substances that don’t belong in your lungs.

According to OSHA, selecting an appropriate respirator for a specific task requires careful consideration of several factors, including the hazards, the job site, the worker, and respirator characteristics. This is why OSHA requires employers to establish and implement a written respiratory protection program with work-site-specific procedures and requirements for respirator use including procedures for respirator selection, medical evaluations, fit testing, training, etc. Programs must be administered by a trained administrator who is qualified and knowledgeable in respiratory protection.


Before strapping on a mask, your first task is to determine what contaminants are in the work area and make a reasonable estimate of employees’ exposure. The nature and intensity of the contaminants will dictate the appropriate type of respirator to use. Here are a number of the most common contaminants and the relevant respirator solution options:

  • Particulates from sanding: N95 filtering face-piece respirator
  • Eye irritation: Full-face respirator, or the use of eye protection along with a half-mask respirator
  • Mold removal: N95 filtering respirator, at minimum
  • Mold-abatement operations: In addition to a mold remediation plan, heavy mold areas warrant the use of a full-face respirator with N, R, or P100 filters
  • Odors: Charcoal-impregnated filter, in combination with the appropriate particulate filter
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Appropriate charcoal filters (organic vapor filters) on a half-mask or full-face respirator
  • Paint: Check the user instructions from the paint manufacturer for recommendations on appropriate respirators

As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all respirator for every situation. (Supplied-air respirators or powered air-purifying respirators can handle a wider combination of contaminants, but they are not commonly used in painting operations.) As such, you and your crew should have a variety of respiratory protection available.

An N95 respirator is commonly used for particulate exposures, but provides no protection from VOCs. In such cases, a half-mask or full-face respirator—which combines an N95 prefilter with the appropriate organic vapor cartridge for the VOC exposure—is the correct tool for the job. As the concentration of the contaminant in the atmosphere increases, a more protective filter, such as an N, R, or P100, may be needed.


In addition to selecting the correct respirator for the task at hand, a fit test is required to select the right-size respirator, and a user seal check verifies that the respirator has been put on and adjusted properly. Workers using negative- or positive-pressure, tight-fitting face-piece respirators must pass an appropriate fit test using the procedures detailed in OSHA’s respirator standards. In addition, workers using tight-fitting face-piece respirators are required to perform a user seal check each time they put on the respirator.

Painters who sport a beard or mustache have additional considerations. Tight-fitting face-piece respirators must not be worn by workers who have facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the face piece and the face, or that interferes with valve function. Respirators that don’t rely on a tight seal, such as hoods or helmets, do not require fit testing in order to achieve their expected performance levels. That can make them a preferred option for bearded individuals.


As the name indicates, respirators with replaceable filters are reusable, with the filters replaced once their service life ends. A disposable respirator may be reused by the same worker as long as it continues to function properly. All filters must be replaced whenever they are damaged, soiled, or cause noticeably increased breathing resistance (e.g., causing discomfort to the wearer). Before each use, the outside of the filter material should be inspected; if it is physically damaged or soiled, the filter should be changed or discarded. Always follow the respirator filter manufacturer’s service time-limit recommendations.

Equally important, you need to have a change schedule as part of the written respirator program, which indicates how often gas or vapor cartridges should be replaced and what information was relied upon to make this judgment. A cartridge’s useful service life is how long it provides adequate protection from harmful chemicals in the air; that depends upon many factors including environmental conditions, breathing rate, cartridge filtering capacity, and the amount of contaminants in the air. Employers should apply a safety factor to the service-life estimate to ensure that the change schedule is conservative.

It’s important to note that heat and humidity both can have an impact on the service life of filters. Increased heat will have an effect on employees and their acceptance of respirators in the workplace, since it can make breathing through a respirator more taxing on the wearer. Increased humidity decreases the capacity of charcoal filters, and therefore their service life.


A safe respirator program includes two final components. First, medical evaluations must be provided by the employer to determine an employee’s ability to use a respirator before the employee is fit-tested or required to use one in the workplace. A physician or other licensed health care professional must perform the medical evaluation, either using the medical questionnaire contained in Appendix C of 29 CFR 1910.134, or an initial medical examination that obtains the same information.

Second, training—comprehensive, understandable and provided annually or more often—must be provided to employees who are required to use respirators. At a minimum, the training should include:

  • Why the respirator is necessary and how improper fit, use, or maintenance can compromise its protective effect
  • Limitations and capabilities of the respirator
  • Effective use in emergency situations
  • How to inspect, put on and remove, use and check the seals
  • Maintenance and storage
  • Recognition of medical signs and symptoms that may limit or prevent effective use
  • General requirements of OSHA’s respirator standards (Appendix C of 29 CFR 1910.134)

Right equipment? Proper fit? Fully functional filter? Medical evaluations and training accomplished? OK, get out there and paint!


Whether purchasing or replacing respirators or filters, they must be approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Painters should also be aware of counterfeit respirators. To view a video on the subject, visit and search ‘respirator counterfeit.’


• OSHA’s Respiratory Protection eTool contains more information on respirators, selection, change schedules, service life, and the various types of contaminants such as mold, lead-based paint, asbestos, and others that contractors may encounter on the job.

• Learn more about the different types of respirators by viewing OSHA’s training video on respirator types, available in both English and Spanish.

• For additional information about fit testing, user seal checks, medical evaluation, and training requirements, check out OSHA’s training videos:

• To help with choosing the most appropriate respirators, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offers extensive guidance and materials for respirators.

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