January 14, 2021

Workshop Highlights Respiratory Hazards for "Nontraditional Workers," Public

Hazards such as wildland fires, air pollution, and infectious diseases are “growing threats to the respiratory safety of many nontraditional workers and members of the general public,” according to a new publication released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Nontraditional workers” include individuals who perform job tasks outside of a formal respiratory protection program (workers in restaurants, retail, correctional facilities, grocery stores, schools, and meatpacking facilities, for example). The publication describes concerns that current systems and processes for respiratory protection do not immediately address the emerging threats. Discussion of these and other issues related to the assessment of respiratory protective devices (RPDs) for both occupational and nonoccupational uses are summarized in the new publication, which details the proceedings of a virtual workshop convened by the National Academies’ Standing Committee on Personal Protective Equipment for Workplace Safety and Health. The August 2020 workshop was intended to examine the current respirator approval process as well as consider gaps in respiratory protection for outdoor workers and the general public.

Workshop participants discussed topics including current practices of the NIOSH respirator approval program and conformity assessment (CA) processes for respirators; whether the respiratory protection needs of underserved groups are served by current standards and assessment programs; and opportunities to improve the communication of respiratory protection guidance to users and other stakeholders. Discussions also addressed respiratory risks and user requirements for the public.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides new opportunities to promote public awareness of respiratory health and safety and to leverage increased public interest in RPDs to increase investment in this area, participants noted during workshop discussion. One participant suggested that the role of NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) could be expanded to “act as the single source of messaging and training about RPDs, both for occupational settings and the public.”

“NIOSH has been working to develop a comprehensive national strategy for respiratory protection that includes CA and research,” explained Maryann D’Alessandro, the director of NPPTL. “The path forward likely includes the development of centers of excellence for personal protection technologies and equipment across the United States.”

A free PDF of the full publication is available from the National Academies Press.