All you need to know about disposable dust masks

What's your problem?

When working in agriculture, you can breathe in a range of dusts, vapours, fumes and mould spores or germs that can cause serious lung diseases, such as occupational asthma, farmers' lung and chronic bronchitis. Severe cases may mean that you have to give up work and face the economic and social consequences.

What can you do about it?

Industry bodies and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are committed to reducing these diseases. Some industries can achieve this by working with less harmful substances or by containing or removing the hazard. This isn't always possible in agriculture, so when doing very dusty work such as grain handling or working with mouldy straw, you might need to wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE) as well as enclosing and extracting the dust and using good work practices to reduce the health risks.

Many types of RPE can protect you against dusts, but small agricultural enterprises are most likely to use lightweight disposable respirators, also known as 'dust masks'.

To help ensure you are protected, all respirators provided for use at work must be CE marked to show that the design has been tested to a recognised standard. They must also be marked with that standard, which for disposable respirators is EN 149: 2001. Additional markings, such as FFP1, FFP2 or FFP3, indicate the protection level that you can get if the respirator is a good fit and you use it correctly. The higher the number, the better the protection. FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3 respirators can reduce the amount of dust you breathe by factors of 4, 10 and 20 respectively. An FFP3 respirator is advisable if you are exposed to high levels of grain dust or mould spores.

Manufacturers must provide written information with each box or pack that includes details such as the safe use of respirators and their limitations. They may also give details of how to fit them correctly and check for a good fit. You may not get this information if you buy a single respirator from a larger pack. When you buy disposable respirators this way for use at work, make a point of asking for a copy of the manufacturer's technical information.

If it leaks it doesn't protect

Even if you have this information, finding a suitable respirator is not simply a matter of choosing a model you like the look of, or the cheapest. Not all faces are the same and neither are disposable respirators. You might need to try different makes or sizes to find one that fits without leaking around the seal and letting dust in. A respirator that depends on face fit is useless if you have a beard or thick beard stubble. The only way you can know if the seal is good enough is by having a proper respirator fit test. At present this is also the only way of meeting legal requirements. The respirator manufacturer's helpline, testing companies and reputable suppliers will be able to advise you.

You should carry out a pre-use check every time you put on your respirator. Always check that it is fitted according to the manufacturer's instructions, eg ensure that the straps and strip for moulding the respirator around your nose are correctly adjusted, then hold the mask in place and breathe in or out sharply. You should readjust the respirator if you detect any leakage around your face or your glasses steam up when you breathe out.

What else?

FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3 are designed to filter out dust only. They must not be used where there is an oxygen-deficient atmosphere or harmful gases and vapours.

You should discard disposable respirators at the end of the shift or sooner if they are heavily contaminated. Never hang up a respirator in a dusty place for use later on.

If wearing a respirator interferes with spectacles, hearing protection or head protection, a powered visor may be more suitable.

What shouldn't you wear?

Some retailers also sell products known as nuisance dust masks or comfort masks that look like dust respirators but are not marked with CE or with any standard. They often have only one head strap. These are not intended for use when a respirator should be worn. You should never use a nuisance dust mask instead of an approved respirator when working with grain dust or mouldy hay, straw, grain or other material that could cause occupational asthma or farmer's lung. Packaging for these masks might be labelled, 'This product does not provide respiratory protection', or something similar.

Need advice?

Manufacturers and reputable suppliers of protective equipment can also help you to decide what type and level of respirator to use. Other sources of information include NFU, HSE publications and the HSE agricultural website. Look out for the agriculture-specific e-COSHH essentials which will come on line in autumn 2005. It will give specific guidance on the likely level of protection needed in various scenarios, the type of dust respirator that should be suitable and whether you can control the risks to health adequately by other means.

Important information for suppliers and retailers

The legal duty to provide the manufacturer's information on safe use and limitations applies to the whole of the supply chain, including local retailers. It is a criminal offence not to provide it. If you meet your customers' needs by selling part packs for use at work you must still give them the manufacturer's technical information, even if it is only as a photocopy.

Prepared by NFU, Agricultural Industries Confederation and HSE.

Is this page useful?