a reusable respirator with filter media and a protective face mask

Breathe Easier: The Pro Painter’s Guide to Respirators

By Jason T. Lunn & Rebecca L. Schumann

We know. You’re anxious to get the job done. You’re busy. And wearing a respirator is not your first priority.

But stop, breathe and think for a minute.

If you’re employing people who paint, you are responsible for the health and safety of your employees, including controlling hazards in the workplace and making sure your people wear personal protective equipment like respirators.

If you’re a painter, do the right thing for yourself and wear a respirator to protect your lungs from exposure. Because even though many paints and coatings meet the most stringent VOC regulations, inhaling chemicals and hazardous dusts can still occur.

Start with air monitoring

Begin with knowledge about your potential exposure and what you might be up against. Air monitoring can help quantify concentrations. This could include monitoring for dust or for certain chemical components in paint products. It could also include specific hazards like lead, mold or asbestos in renovation work.

How do you go about monitoring your work environment? There are a number of different ways to go about it, including contacting OSHA Consultation (NOT the enforcement side of OSHA) to bring someone out to monitor the air and provide guidance, going through a third-party Industrial Hygiene consultant to conduct the air sampling, going through your risk insurance company, or you could even do it yourself if you are competent in industrial hygiene sampling methods.

A mask or a respirator?

This is a common question, but the difference between a mask and a respirator is extremely important. A “mask” is not designed to keep fine dust out of your deep lungs. Masks have not undergone any government filtration performance testing. They are intended to keep the larger particles out of your mouth.

In contrast, a respirator has filter media and forms a tight seal to the face to reduce your exposure to airborne particulates. To be called a “respirator,” the filtering facepiece must be NIOSH approved and state the NIOSH rating (such as N95) on the product.

Making the right choice

The choice between a disposable filtering facepiece respirator and a reusable cartridge respirator relates back to your exposure assessment and what kind of protection you need, so make sure you understand what hazards you’ll be exposed to for a particular job.

Disposable respirators

When you hear the term “disposable respirator,” think protection against particle exposures, not chemical exposures. Some disposable respirators do offer a layer of carbon in the media to help reduce exposure to some odors, but it’s not enough carbon to deal with chemical exposures that are exceeding OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs).

Disposable respirators tend to be more comfortable than their reusable counterparts because of their lighter construction. They cost less, require no maintenance and are simply thrown away at the end of their service life.

Reusable respirators

When you’re dealing with chemical exposures that exceed OSHA’s Permissible Exposure limits (PELs), select a reusable respirator with the appropriate chemical cartridge. Reusable respirators are versatile since they offer the option of choosing a particle filter or chemical cartridge.

Chemical cartridges contain activated carbon to help reduce exposure to a variety of different chemical types, depending on the NIOSH approval rating.

The carbon inside the cartridges is treated for different chemical types. Because of the many different chemicals you may be exposed to, there are a variety of chemical cartridge options designed for specific applications. They are color coded to help with selection (see chart below).

Common Cartridge Color Designations

COLOR CODE NIOSH APPROVED FOR
Black Certain organic vapors
White Acid gasses
Yellow Organic vapors and acid gases
Green Ammonia
Olive Other vapors not specifically mentioned
Magenta High Efficiency Particulates (PAPRs) or P100

Some cartridges allow you to add a particulate prefilter, so you can help filter out both particulates and gases/vapors. Reusable respirators also have the option of using particulate filters only which can attach to the reusable facepiece directly.

Reusable respirators require regular maintenance and cleaning and have a higher initial cost than disposables, but they may save money in the long run when the facepiece is reused and the cartridges and filters are simply replaced.

When properly fit and sealed to the face, a disposable respirator and a half facepiece reusable respirator offer the same level of protection for the worker. OSHA has assigned them both a protection factor of 10. This means they protect against particulate contaminant concentrations up to ten times the occupational exposure limit.

Related content

5 common scenarios: Which respirator should I use?
Detailed information on respirators available at Sherwin-Williams


This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of PPC magazine. It was written by Jason T. Lunn, Senior Technical Service Engineer, and Rebecca L. Schumann, Industrial Hygienist, Technical Service, at 3M Safety Products. If you’re a small business owner and would like help with respiratory compliance, you can contact 3M for a “Respirator Selection Guide” and several “Wear It Right” posters for your crews’ reference. Simply call 1-800-494-3552.