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Safety on a job site is the number one priority. As a business owner, you are responsible for the safety of everyone that you hire and have on the job site. It is important that you do not take this responsibility lightly. As a foreman or supervisor, it is your responsibility as well to identify any safety risks and to report them to the owner or take action to mitigate these risks. As a worker, it is up to you to take care of yourself on the job site. You have the right to refusal for any unsafe work.
Air quality is so important on an construction site. Especially in hardscaping when cutting concrete, using cement, or installing sand, there are numerous times on a job site when particles surround us. We need to ensure that our lungs are protected from these particles. You may not feel it now, but over time this will catch up to you.
Not to mention the laws in effect that ensure you have proper safety gear for your employees on hand especially when exposure of dust particles is high. In this post, we are going to discuss safety measures for dust control in terms of choosing the right mask to wear on the job site to protect yourself from dust exposure, as well as the health risks involved.
Hazards of Silica Dust
Silica is the most common element in the earth. You will find it in the dirt, concrete, and sand. Silica in and of itself is not a problem. Where it does becomes a problem is when we are crushing, grinding, drilling, and cutting it which creates a dust that can be breathed into your lungs. These dust particles are called respirable crystalline silica and are 100 times smaller than sand. This dust is classified as a human lung carcinogen. This means that when enough of it is inhaled, it will create a scar tissue in your lungs and will lead to silicosis which can be fatal. There is no way to get it out of your lungs. Once it is there, it is there for good. Symptoms of silicosis can include a shortness of breath, rapid breathing, coughing, chest pain, loss of appetite and weight loss, fever, and more. Obviously something that you want to avoid if you can.
This is why it is so important to wear the proper safety gear whenever you are cutting, grinding, crushing, and drilling. Really whenever there is some dust present, whether you are engulfed in it or you can barely notice it. It is also why OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the United States, as well as Workplace Health and Safety Regulations in Canada, have become increasingly harsh with fines related to dust control.
One way in which you can control dust on a job site is to cut wet or use a vacuum system when cutting. Still, it is important to wear a mask in this situations when dust may still be around us. In addition to that, there still may be dust flying around on a job site when installing something like sand or compacting, so it is important to always have these dust masks on hand on the job site regardless of your dust control system in place.
If you want to learn more about these vacuum systems, dust control, and OSHA compliance on the job site, you can listen to this episode of our podcast with Dust Killer Tools.
Choosing a Dust Mask
What is the right mask for your job site? In this post we are specifically talking about protecting yourself from dust and not other chemicals or airborne oil-based particles. If you are in contact with these particles, you will want to refer to other types of masks for your protection. However, when we are talking about dust protection, we are talking about N95 dust masks.
What is an N95 Dust Mask?
N95 masks are able to filter out 95% of particulate matter (PM) 0.3 microns in diameter or larger that are non-oil-based. These particles can include those from wildfires, air pollution, volcanic eruptions, viruses (which we see with the COVID-19), and dust as discussed in this post. It generally has one or two valves that are used for exhalation and allow any glasses or goggles to not get fogged up or the mask pushing away from the face when exhaling from the pressure.
KN95 vs N95 Dust Masks
Every country has their own standard in terms of masks that filter particulate matter of a certain size. KN95 is the China regulation equivalent to the N95 in the United States. Though there are small differences that you can find here, it is recognized as being equivalent. Other masks that are equivalent to the N95 are FFP2 in Europe, AS/NZ P2, Korea 1st Class, and Japan DS FFRs.
What About N99 Dust Masks?
N99 dust masks and above filter out 99% of the particulate matter. However, depending on the exposure to dust and length of time somebody is exposed to dust on a job site throughout the day, you may only be required to have a N95 mask. Again, this is dependent on the situation and you should do your own research if that is required to choose the right dust mask for your crew and yourself. In some cases, you may require a full mask. In other cases, an N95 will do the trick. OSHA has some guidelines that you can follow if you are operating in the United States.
What About P95 and R95 Masks?
In addition to being able to filter out 95% of particulate matter of 0.3 microns in diameter or more, P95 masks are oil proof and R95 masks are resistant to oil, which N95 masks are not. We are not going to get into these masks, as we are specifically speaking on the use of dust masks on the job site. However, if your job site also includes oil-based pollutants you will want to learn more about these masks.
Best Dust Masks
When choosing a dust mask for your business you want to ensure that it is NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) certified (or at the very least the equivalent to). If OSHA comes knocking at your door, they will want to know that you are using the proper masks for the job. Having the right PPE dust mask available at all times to your employees is crucial to their health and well being. You do not want to be on bad terms with OSHA and being prepared for their visit is better than scrambling and getting caught off-guard.
How to Wear a Dust Mask
Wearing a mask properly is the first step to protection. If your mask has two straps, the lower strap is stretched over the head and rests below your skull and above your neck, whereas the second strap is placed slightly above the back of your skull. If there is a metal nose piece on your mask, you should gently pinch and push on it to form around your nose. To ensure there is a proper seal, you will need to have the mask contacting your skin and not any facial hair. Double check that there is a proper seal by placing your hands around the mask, inhaling and exhaling, and checking for leaks in the mask. Your exhaling should be coming out of the seal if there is one.
Storing and Reusing N95 Dust Masks
It is important that we make it clear that you should read the manufacturer’s instructions and that you should understand that this is for use of N95 masks against dust. Disposable dust masks can be reused by the same wearer as long as they are stored in a way that protects it from being damaged, coming into contact with other products, away from sunlight and extreme temperatures, and moisture.
If the manufacturer’s instructions do not state the number of reuses or condition of the mask, there are some guidelines that NIOSH has in terms of reuse. Your mask should retain its shape, not be damaged or soiled, and it should not increase noticeable breathing resistance. Typically 8 hours of use is the limit in dusty workplaces.
There are some excellent masks on the market and when used properly will help to protect yourself and your crew on a job site full of dust. There are great disposable masks and reusable masks that involve replacing filters when need-be that we are going to talk about.
Best Disposable Dust Mask
Best Reusable Dust Mask
Dust Mask for Beards
When it comes to disposable dust masks, most have one centered valve to allow for air to release during your exhale. This allows the internal temperature of the mask to remain relatively cool while also remaining secured to your face. It also reduces glasses fog. This is ideal because whenever you are wearing a mask you are likely wearing safety glasses as well.
Typically what you are looking for when purchasing N95 masks are that they do say N95 on them with the NIOSH certification. This ensures that they have been tested and do what they say they are going to do. The other thing that you need to consider is the fit and the cost. Not every disposable dust mask is going to fit the same, but if you can find one that works for you, then stick with it. Hopefully that also turns out to be a more inexpensive option.
N95 masks also have a shelf life, so make sure that you check those dates when you are purchasing them and using them within their lifespan.
However, when we are purchasing masks for our company, we buy the reusable masks where only cartridges are being replaced for our long-term workers. Those that have just started working or have not been there long will use the disposable masks until they are doing a job that requires a more heavy-duty tight seal dust mask like we talk about with reusable dust masks.
Our favorite reusable dust mask is made by the folks over at RZ Mask. They offer an incredible option for a carbon filter dust mask that is reusable mask and filters at an unbeatable rate. Their designs are also a plus in terms of purchasing something that is uniquely yours. Our RZ Mask review is that it is both a comfortable dust mask, as well as a high quality dust mask in terms of its features and fit.
Their filters block 99.9% of particulates down to 0.1 micron which is actually better than the N95 rating. However, the company has not yet received the NIOSH rating just yet. Their testing was completed at Nelson Laboratories in Salt Lake City, Utah and concluded with their findings stated above.
Each mask comes with two F1 active carbon filters that last 20-30+ hours in heavy dust exposure and 30-40+ hours in light dust exposure. The masks themselves are constructed out of mesh making them lightweight and extremely breathable. They have two valves for exhalation and to reduce the condensation of your safety glasses. They have an adjustable nose clip and an adjustable Velcro strap to provide 360 degree protection and to ensure a lasting seal while being used.
If you are looking for a silica face mask that is NIOSH approved, then the Air Stealth Mask by Trend is the one for you. This respirator is actually rated N100 for concrete dust and other particulates, and it is a perfect alternative to the other two masks featured in this post. The face piece is comfortable, lightweight, and flexible providing a secure fit. The two head straps are adjustable ensuring that there is a secure fit. Cartridges are replaceable allowing you to purchase relatively inexpensive cartridges that last longer and reducing your cost of purchasing disposable dust masks. These masks feature a large filter area for less breathing resistance and better filter efficiency. The filters capture 99.99% of particulates that are 0.3 microns or more. There is an exhalation valve at the bottom which ensures your glasses will not fog up. There is a single adjustable strap that hooks to the back of your neck and another strap that is placed at the back of your head.
If a seal is not created between the mask and skin contact, the dust mask is not doing its job properly. Silica dust is a small percentage the size of a strand of hair. That means that any contact between the dust mask and a beard would leave more than enough of a gap to allow for particles to move into the mask and be inhaled by the user. Currently there is no mask that mitigates this risk. The best option is to trim your beard appropriately so that the mask you are using is able to make skin contact and a proper seal to do its job in protecting your lungs from particles.
At this time, OSHA does not require an employer to provide an alternative to employees who refuse to trim or shave their beards to allow a proper seal of the dust mask. As an employer, you should make it clear to your employees upon hiring that they would be required to have a properly trimmed beard to allow for the ample seal of a mask for their own protection. You should consult with your lawyer in order to incorporate this in your business.
Dust Masks on the Job Site
There is a lot to consider when purchasing the right dust masks for yourself and your employees. Ultimately everyone will find the right model for themselves and a lot of that has to do with the right fit and style. We really enjoy our RZ Masks in our company, but there is always a time and place for a disposable dust mask especially for new employees. Health and safety is number one on any of our job sites, and it is important to that the industry sets the same standard. Not only is it beneficial for all, but it also helps our industry in appealing to new recruits as well all know the labor shortage that exists. Setting the standard starts with your commitment to health and safety on any job site.