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Face fit testing - what you need to know

photo shows respiratory protective equipmentIll-fitting clothing is unflattering. Ill-fitting shoes are uncomfortable and ill-fitting protective equipment is unfit for purpose and therefore unsafe. This fact is recognized in law.

For example, the law requires that almost all protective masks be face-fit tested to ensure that they provide effective protection. The sole exception is powered hoods (also known as air-fed hoods).

(You should only use Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) after you have taken all other reasonably practicable measures to prevent or control exposure (consider the hierarchy of risk control). By going through the risk assessment process, you can determine whether the use of RPE is necessary in your workplace. If you write your justification for using RPE on your risk assessment record you should remember the reasons behind your chosen control regime and be able to adapt it in the future as necessary.)

With that in mind, here is a quick guide to what you need to know about RPE.

All staff must be individually face-fit tested

You wouldn’t expect all your staff to wear a standard-size pair of shoes so you shouldn’t expect them to wear a standard-size face mask.

Each member of staff has to be individually face-fit tested and they need to be clean-shaven for the test. They also need to be clean-shaven at any time they work using the mask.

The reason for this is that any facial hair, even stubble, will prevent the mask from forming a tight seal with the face and, basically, render it useless.

If a member of staff has to wear a beard for religious reasons (or any other acceptable reason) then the only compliant option is to issue them with a powered hood.

For completeness, if a member of staff has to wear more than one type of face mask, then they need to be face fit tested for each of the face masks that they use.

There are different types of tests for different types of masks

In short, any type of mask can be tested using the quantitative method. Disposables and half masks can also be tested using the qualitative method.

The quantitative method requires a PortaCount machine, operated by a competent face fit tester. This measures the number of ambient particles inside and outside a facepiece and simply returns a pass/fail result.

The qualitative method uses a set of test exercises to assess whether or not a wearer can smell or taste a test agent thus indicating that there is face-seal leakage. These tests must be overseen by a competent face fit tester.

It is important to keep face fit testing records to demonstrate compliance

Face fit testing is a legal requirement. It is covered by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Operational Circular OC 282/28 and further guidance can be found in the HSE publication HSG53 Respiratory protective equipment at work.

Given that respiratory-related conditions and diseases are the third-largest work-related illness in the UK and that construction workers are exposed to all kinds of significant airborne hazards, it is probably safe to assume that the HSE will act quickly and firmly on any indications of non-compliance.

In order to demonstrate compliance, employers must be able to show that face-fit testing was carried out appropriately. This means:

  • as part of the initial selection process
  • with staff clean-shaven
  • using appropriate methodology (e.g. quantitative or qualitative)
  • and by a competent person

A competent person is one with the necessary knowledge and skills and the easiest (and safest) way to demonstrate this is to send the individual on an appropriate training course.

Remember, RPE is the last line of protection - it can protect only the wearer and, if it is used incorrectly, or is poorly maintained, it is unlikely to provide the required protection. Note also that RPE can be uncomfortable to wear and may interfere with work, which can lead to incorrect use.

Author Bio

Watson and Watson are health and safety specialists, providing health and safety training, consultancy and support to businesses throughout the UK.


The laws that are relevant to this article are:

  • The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, 1999. These require you to provide and maintain a safe working environment, so far as is reasonably practicable.
  • Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, 2002 (COSHH). These regulations state the general requirements imposed on employers to protect employees and others from the hazards of substances used at work by: risk assessment; control of exposure; health surveillance and; incident planning.
  • Control of Asbestos Regulations, 2012.
  • Control of Lead at Work Regulations, 2002.
  • Ionising Radiations Regulations, 1999.
  • Confined Spaces Regulations, 1997.

Finally, RPE used at work must be manufactured in accordance with the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002. In practice, this means you need to use CE-marked equipment. The CE mark on RPE tells you that the equipment has met the minimum legal requirements for its design.

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