The beard, they come in all shapes, sizes and styles. For some men, it is a fashion statement, an indication of their style, an image of masculinity. To others an iconic hipster trend. For some, it keeps them warm during the cold winter months, and for some, it’s just a better option to avoid the bother of the daily shave. While for a few, well they think it will help them find their soul mate. Whichever way you look at it, ask anyone who has gone through the patchiness and itching and taken the time to grow, shape and groom their bearded wonders you’ll find out they have become so attached to their growth that they just can’t let it go. However, ask a safety officer what they think of facial hair and you’ll hear a different story. They’ll most likely tell you it is a contentious issue that can get quite hairy and the bane of their very existence every time they need to hand out respirators to bearded or stubble-faced workers.
The subject of facial hair or beards is a common issue wherever respirators are worn. How long can facial hair be? Does it really matter? The answer is clear - If you need to wear a negative pressure tight-fitting respirator on the job, any facial hair, beards and even stubble are not acceptable and you’ll need to be clean shaven where the respirator’s sealing surfaces touch your face. AS/NZS 17151 Section 8.3 tells us “…Facial hair lying between the sealing surface of a RPE facepiece and the wearer’s skin will prevent a good seal….Therefore, individuals who have stubble (even a few days’ growth will cause excessive leakage of contaminant), a moustache, sideburns, or a beard which passes between the skin and the sealing surface should not wear a respirator which requires a facial seal.” This restriction applies to any close fitting respirators - whether full or half facepieces.
Close fitting respirators need to seal tightly to the face. Gaps in this face seal let the dirty contaminated air leak inside the respirator. It is obvious then that respirator filters cannot clean the air that bypasses the filter and is leaking through the face seal. Even a day or two’s growth of stubble can be enough to give significant leak paths for contaminants to make their way straight into your lungs. Face seal leakage reduces the wearer’s protection - it can be to a point where no protection is provided at all.
There is a common misconception that facial hair under the seal can filter the air that passes between the faceseal and the skin. While human hair appears to be very fine, it is much larger in size than the particles inhaled and does not aid the filtering process. In reality, facial hair is not dense enough and the individual hairs are too large to capture particles, gases and vapours like an air filter does; in fact, the size of particles that are most dangerous to the lungs are far too small to be caught by a few human hairs. The hair acts to lift the mask off the skin and opens pathways for unfiltered air to reach the nose and mouth. So any facial hair that lies along the sealing area of a respirator, such as stubble, beards, sideburns, or some moustaches, will interfere with respirators that rely on a tight facepiece seal to achieve maximum protection, allowing contaminated air to take the path of least resistance and travel straight through the facial hair directly into the respiratory tract of the wearer. Research indicates that the presence of facial hair under the sealing surface causes 20 to 1000 times more leakage compared to that of a clean-shaven person.
Airborne Contaminants can range from several microns (1 micron = 1/1000th mm) down to fractions of a micron. As the diagram to the right illustrates a human hair has an average thickness of about 150 micron. A single hair width will hold the mask off the face like a steeple and create spaces for the micron-sized particles to leak past.
“One important fact to take into
consideration is that respirators are
disposable...your lungs are not.”
Don’t despair, there are some forms of facial hair that are acceptable though, as long you are willing to landscape your manly bristles into a neatly sculpted style that does not interfere with safe respirator operation. That is one that ensures no facial hair comes between the sealing surface of the facepiece or extend far enough to interfere with the valve function if one exists. The ultimate test to ensure you are protected is whether or not your well groomed facial hairstyle passes a fit test. Respirator fit testing is a method for checking that a tight-fitting facepiece, commonly known as a mask or respirator, matches the wearer’s facial features and seals effectively to their face. The fit test also serves to ensure that incorrectly fitting facepieces are not selected for use and that the wearer can don the respirator correctly to control exposure. To learn more about fit testing visit the 3M Centre for Respiratory Protection.
Not sure which facial hairstyles may be acceptable to sport with tight-sealing respirators? The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a chart complete with a line representing a typical sealing surface to help workers determine what may work. Click on the image to the right for a larger view.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that works for every workplace. Some organisations enforce a clear clean-shaven policy as a condition of their employment for workers assigned to wear tight-fitting respirators. Others may allow facial hair on the days when employees aren’t required to wear their tight-fitting respirators on the condition that the worker will shave if respirators need to be worn. Others accommodate workers who don’t want to shave or can’t shave because of religious beliefs to work in other locations not needing respiratory protection or may provide them with loose fitting respirators with an air supply that do not require a faceseal. This equipment allows the whole head to be covered and the sealing surfaces to be under the chin or around the neck. A Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) with suitable filters or a supplied airline system, with a hood or helmet style head top as needed, can be worn by these woolly individuals to give the necessary respiratory protection, instead of a tight-fitting respirator. These options, however, are more expensive and more complicated to use and maintain.
Respiratory protection is serious business, workers need respirators that fit well, are comfortable and provide the best protection. Are your employees protected? A respirator can’t provide the expected protection if it doesn’t fit their faces. Best practice for any Personal Protective Equipment is to ensure the right fit, proper fitting of a respirator requires the application of an accepted method of fit testing in accordance with Standards Australia’s guidance document AS/NZS 17151: 2009.
At 3M, we believe that you should be able to afford the very best in respiratory protective equipment. So for a limited time, we are making it easier for you to access our wide range of 3M premium respiratory products with our exclusive discount on fit testing offer.
Contact a 3M Safety Specialist for more information or visit the 3M Centre for Respiratory Protection where you can explore step-by-step tools to ensure your respiratory protection is comprehensive and effective.