SH - Topics - Respirator - Masks

Lung cancer, asthma, and kidney disease are just a few examples of what can happen when workers aren’t protected from breathing air contaminated with toxic chemicals or dusts.

Respirators protect workers from breathing hazardous air. Respirators are tested and regulated to ensure appropriate protection to users - unlike a cloth face covering, hobby mask, or even a medical or surgical mask.

The information, rules, and resources provided here will help with respirators in the workplace.


Getting Started

Deciding when a respirator is necessary and what kind is needed are complex tasks for some businesses. The best way to get started is to:

  1. Know what’s making the air hazardous and get professional help, if needed, to assess that.
  2. Consider all possible solutions, not just respirators, to fix the problem.

Maybe, instead of needing to use respirators as a “quick fix”, improving ventilation or changing how work is done or scheduled will take care of the problem (or at least reduce it).

If you aren’t sure how to check for hazardous air or want to know more about possible solutions to fix hazards, guidance is available from the:

No-cost, professional help is available from an L&I safety & health consultant near you.

Some Common User Issues To Know About

As workers adapt to using respirators, some issues may emerge.

When the goal is to ensure correct respirator use, keep it constructive. It could take time, effort, and focused support to turn the corner and get to a place where respirator use is running smoothly for everyone.

Any business, especially one new to respirator use, will learn to appreciate that:

  • Comfort is important. While no one likes to wear a respirator, finding the most comfortable style and size among a variety of options provided during a fit testing session will go a long way towards ensuring consistent use. Also, some fit issues may show up after fit testing (e.g., skin irritation or interference with other head gear like welding helmets) so make sure workers know who to ask about getting refitted to a different style or size of respirator and encourage them to do that without fear of retaliation.
  • Successful respirator use depends on the user and their supervisor knowing what respirators can and can’t do, how to prevent leak issues, learning hands-on skills such as how to correctly put on and remove the respirator, and what to do if they need to clean & maintain, store, and replace it.
  • There are many easy ways to compromise an air-tight seal of an N95 or other tight-fitting respirator, including failing to put on the respirator correctly (creating gaps for leakage) and not performing a seal check to detect any gaps or leakage. Keeping the face-to-mask seal free of facial hair like long bangs, beards, and even stubble may become a daily issue to monitor for most businesses.
  • Parts replacement for reusable respirators can easily go sideways if someone isn’t making sure only NIOSH-approved parts are ordered and always available. If the right parts aren’t available, users might use the wrong air purifying cartridges or hoses or attempt to force-fit incompatible parts together with duct tape.

It’s better to proactively monitor for use issues when someone is new to respirator use than to wait until bad habits form (which can be “contagious” in some work settings). If a worker is not consistently using their respirator correctly, and it’s not a comfort issue, they may benefit from refresher training on certain aspects of use. Getting constructive on-the-job coaching from a trusted peer or supervisor, sometimes in another language or by instructional demonstration, will often fix the issue.

Requirements & Policies

When respirators are necessary, a respirator program is required.

A respirator program describes how your particular business:

  • Provides the right respirator for the hazards, work conditions, and user
  • Ensures workers are medically cleared for use
  • Conducts fit-testing to ensure tight-fitting respirators adequately and comfortably fit the user.
  • Trains users so they know when and how to correctly use, maintain, and replace their respirator.
  • Uses observations and user feedback to ensure effective use

In workplaces where respirator use is voluntary, a reduced respirator program may be required depending on the type of respirator used.


This table provides a summary of key respirator requirements for employers:

Requirements Voluntary Use -  Filtering Facepiece Respirators Only Voluntary Use All Other Respirators Required Use of Respirators
Required Evaluation of Respiratory hazards Yes (no hazards found)* Yes (no hazards found)* Yes
Respiratory Protection Program Administrator No Yes Yes
Written Program No Yes (Limited) Yes
Medical evaluation No Yes Yes
Select and provide appropriate NIOSH Approved Respirator No No Yes
Employee Training Provide Table 2 Yes (limited including providing Table 2) Yes
Fit testing No No Yes (Initial and Yearly)
Provide Table 2 ( Advisory Information for Employees Who Voluntarily Use Respirators) Yes Yes No

* Voluntary use of respirators is allowed only when the employer has determined there is no respiratory hazard.

Review the respirator rule for additional requirements. Additionally, there are other rules that have respirator requirements. Some examples include asbestos, lead, and welding. Use the safety topic search to find those rules and any related resources.

Training & Resources

The resources below can help answer your respirator questions.

Fit Tests

General Resources

Medical Evaluations

Publications, Handouts, Checklists

Safety Plan or Program Templates

Safety Meetings and Tips

Training for Groups

Training for Individuals


  • Respirator Training Videos from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA provides a variety of informational respirator videos including maintenance and care of respirators, respirator types, medical evaluations, use in construction, use in healthcare, how to put on a respirator, and other subjects.)

Voluntary Respirator Use

For topic-specific information, see also:

More help from L&I: