Is there a respirator in your tool box?

Scott wearing a P100 respirator.

They’re hot, they’re sweaty, they make you sound like Darth Vader and they leave marks on your face when taken off, but after many years of stubbornness and/or vanity, I now always have some form of respirator handy when I’m working on a dusty project. But which one is the right one to have handy when you start your next project?

I grew up rarely using a respirator and luckily never really did anything with overly hazardous particles floating about. Mostly sawdust and paint fumes made it to my lungs in well ventilated garages and rooms. When I started eyeing old furniture caked in flaking paint applied before my grandparents were born and safety standards and things like low VOC’s weren’t really on people’s minds, I decided I needed to think about some lung and sinus protection.

So I started googling. Could I be safe sanding and still look cool wearing a bandana tied around my face?

No. 🙁

A bandana / kerchief is in no way shape or form a suitable respirator. There are too many variables and chances are the cotton weave is just too loose to stop anything. Dust will go right through it.

So on to less cool looking options. And learning. Suddenly I was standing in a Home Depot aisle staring at masks with either an N , P or R on them with a number suffix. Many respirators will tell you right on the box what they’re good for, but here’s a quick run down:

N: Not to be used with oil based products. (Oil based products can be things like paints and pesticides. Check the bottle of whatever chemical you plan on using; many will detail in the fine print the respirator type needed!)

P: Resistant to oil based products, but for no more than 8 hours.

R: Oil proof

All right, good to know. So what about the number? The number is the efficiency of the respirator. A 95 means it will filter out 95% of any given particulate it’s rated for. An N95 will filter out 95% of any non-oil based particulate swirling around the job site.

Of course knowing what you’re about to jettison in teeny bits into the air around you is a good thing. For things like sanding wood, wire brushing metal or dealing with small amounts (under 10 sq ft.) of mould, an N95 will most likely do. When dealing with chemicals like paint thinner and sanding anything that may be dangerous like lead paint, I use a P100 respirator. There are other masks that I may need in the future, like using an R series mask if I get into welding, but for now I think these two kinds of masks will do.

An N95 and a P100 respirator.
An N95 and a P100 respirator.

Which lead me to buying some masks! I found two cheap N95 disposable mask options by 3M. There’s a bulk pack at Home Depot, 20 for under $30. They also make a fancier one that lets you breathe a little easier and reduces safety google fogging, but a single mask costs about $7.50.

For the P100, we picked a non disposable mask that has cartridges that need swapping out every once in a while. It set us back about $50, but well worth it. I’m not going to risk getting lead or worse in my system.

I often find myself reaching for the fancy P100 mask anyways; it may be overkill from a safety perspective, but a little extra safety is never a bad thing.

So what about asbestos? The best mask for that if you’re doing a little work around the home and need to bring up some tile or duct work is a put-down-your-tools-and-back-out-of-the-room-while-holding-your-breath-and-phone-a-professional mask. Seriously. Don’t even think of trying to tackle that yourself. Find an abatement company and spend the money to have it done right.

So I may not look too cool when I’m working, but my lungs will be much pinker and squishier than without a respirator. How about you? What do you use to keep your lungs safe in the workshop and worksite? Let us know in the comments.

A little extra reading:

Worksafe BC  – Breathe Safer

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety  – Respirator Selection

Wikipedia – Respirator




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