A Close Shave

 by Janet L. Keyes

Does your face get cold in winter? There’s an easy fix – grow a beard. But that doesn’t work for some men, most women – or many painters. Every employee required to wear a tight-fitting respirator must not have facial hair where the respirator seals to the face. End of story.

Q: My employee says he can’t smell anything when he’s wearing the respirator, even with his beard. It fits okay then – right? 

A: No.

 Relying on one’s sense of smell isn’t reliable. Have you ever walked into a mixing room and been taken aback by the strong solvent smell? How do your painters tolerate that? Olfactory fatigue. If you remain in an area with a strong smell, your nose gets tired and stops responding. Painters are around organic solvents all day, whether painting, mixing or degreasing. You cannot rely on them to be able to detect a respirator leak by smell.

OSHA’s respirator standard states that “employers shall not permit respirators with tight fitting facepieces to be worn by employees who have facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the facepiece and the face or that interferes with valve function; or any condition that interferes with the face-to-facepiece seal or valve function.” That explicitly prohibits beards. Goatees are okay – if they are trimmed back so they fit inside the respirator. Mustaches are fine, as long as they aren’t elaborate walrus mustaches that stick out of the respirator. Sideburns – no problem if they don’t extend too far.


Q: My employee was able to pass a fit test with his beard. It must be okay.

A: No, it isn’t okay.

 Fit-testing is done to determine if a respirator is the right size and shape to protect the employee. OSHA requires this initially, annually and if there is a change that affects respirator fit. That change could be changing the brand or size of the respirator. It would also include a change in the employee’s face, such as a broken nose or significant weight loss.

No one respirator fits everybody. Nose sizes differ. Some chins are pointed; some are round. Some people have broad faces; some narrow. Manufacturers make different sizes and styles to accommodate as many faces as possible. If you only give your employees one choice of respirator, it might fit everyone – or it may not. Fit testing is the way to determine if employees are able to obtain a fit good enough to provide the level of protection needed.

 Although OSHA’s respirator standard lays out exactly how fit testing is to be done, it is not a completely objective science. The most common type of fit testing, qualitative fit testing, relies on an employee’s ability to taste or smell the challenge agent. It often isn’t done correctly – too few exercises are used, it’s done too quickly, or the tester doesn’t verify that the respirator user can sense the challenge agent. Even when done correctly, it is subjective. Someone with a beard could pass, simply by stating that the test agent wasn’t detected.

Another type of fit testing, quantitative fit testing, is much more objective. This measures the amount of leakage into the facepiece by measuring the pressure differential or by measuring microscopic particles in the air. But even this method has variables that can change whether someone passes or fails. If we test someone with a beard, that person could pass. But we’d be in violation of OSHA’s standard – and risking that person’s health – if we say the beard is okay.


Q: I’ll have my employee shave when he’s being fit-tested. That’s adequate, isn’t it?

A: No. Absolutely no.

 Your painters’ respirators are meant to keep them from breathing contaminants when they’re working. If the respirator doesn’t seal well, it won’t keep out contaminants. And facial hair breaks that seal. Vapors and small particles easily get past those hairs. NIOSH reports that facial hair under the respirator’s seal will cause 20 to 1000 times more leakage than a clean-shaven face.

Fit testing shows that the respirator can fit well enough. But if you change how the respirator fits by adding a beard, the fit test results no longer apply.


Why can body techs have beards?

NIOSH studies have shown that dust levels from body work are typically below occupational exposure limits. That means respirator use is not mandatory. We encourage respirator use in dusty conditions (although we really prefer to have the dust controlled by other means, such as vacuum sanders). But that use is voluntary, so fit isn’t critical.

If your body techs are using cartridge-type respirators, they need the same medical approvals required of your painters. They need sufficient training to ensure using the respirator will not cause any harm. They need to keep the respirators clean and in good condition, same as your painters.

If their work is very dusty, dusty enough that respirator use becomes mandatory, then the beards have to go.

I’ll lose my painter if I tell him he has to shave.

Then provide a respirator that can be worn with a beard, an air-supplied respirator or a loose-fitting powered air purifying respirator. Many painters like these a lot, once they get used to them. They are cooler in summer and provide a higher level of protection. But they can’t be slipped on and off as easily as half-mask respirators. They are more expensive than half mask respirators. If you use air supplied respirators, you need to make sure the air is filtered to provide breathing quality air and is tested for carbon monoxide (and you have to keep the airlines to the respirator separate from those for the paint gun).

Are respirators really needed?

Maybe not, particularly if you spray waterborne paints (and primers and clears – assuming they’re available to you). The only way to know is to monitor the air. To do that, the painter would wear a monitor that collects the chemicals of concern onto appropriate media, such as activated charcoal. A qualified laboratory would then extract the chemicals and measure how much was collected. Divide that by the time exposed to get the air concentration.

We’ve found, though, that the mist from painting can be high enough to require respirator use, even if the vapor levels aren’t high enough.

The take-home message: 

Bearded painters cannot wear tight-fitting respirators (not safely, at least). They need to stay clean-shaven – or switch to loose-fitting respirators (airline or powered air purifying respirators). You need to do initial and annual fit testing for tight-fitting respirators, so you know the respirators can protect them. But the respirator has to be worn as it was fitted, with no facial hair breaking the seal.

Want more? Check out the December 2023 issue of AASP-MN News!