Workplace Solutions Personal protective equipment Respiratory protection

Selecting the right respirator

How do I choose between a full-face respirator and a half-face respirator?


Responding is Mark Heuchert, marketing manager, Draeger Inc.,, Houston.

Workplace environments – and the dangers associated with them – can pose a serious challenge to any environmental, health and safety manager responsible for keeping everyone safe.

When air quality and an employee’s ability to breathe are at stake, proper personal protective equipment typically includes respirators. A respirator reduces the wearer’s risk of inhaling airborne particles, including hazardous gases, vapors and infectious substances, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Respirators range from relatively simple disposable dust masks to more robust, reusable models that incorporate a variety of features, including communication capabilities. Reusable respirators fall into two categories: full-face respirators and half-face respirators.

As their names suggest, full-face respirators have masks that cover the entire face, providing protection to the eyes, nose and mouth. Half-face respirators, on the other hand, have masks that cover only the nose and mouth.

Both full- and half-face respirators work in the same way to protect a wearer’s respiratory system. A built-in valve allows workers to exhale easily while keeping contaminants out when they inhale. Pre-filters, filters and cartridges are attached to the outside of the mask to capture particles, gases and vapors.

Deciding between a full- and half-face respirator depends mostly on the work environment where it’ll be used, applicable job functions and the substances to which a worker is potentially exposed. Here are some common considerations and general guidelines:

Full-face respirators:

  • Are designed to protect the sensitive membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth and throat, and provide a higher level of protection than half-face respirators.
  • Form a seal around the entire face, which is easier than sealing the nose and mouth alone.
  • Are well-suited for environments where workers are exposed to liquids that could potentially splash.
  • Are especially effective in environments where fine airborne particles or vapors are present.
  • Are sometimes a better fit or more comfortable for some faces than a half-face mask. This is especially true for people who have broken their nose in the past.

Half-face respirators:

  • Cover the lower half of the face – the nose and mouth.
  • Are typically more compatible with other PPE – such as hard hats, earmuffs and faceshields – and eyeglasses, as arms of eyeglasses can interfere with the seal of a full-face mask.

Thousands of U.S. workers show up to do their jobs each day knowing they’ll face harsh, inhospitable and even hazardous conditions. For these workers, being equipped with the appropriate PPE is imperative.

Respirators are a key component of proper PPE. Choosing full- or half-face respirators, or a combination of both, is the option of individual workplaces and their workers. However, when air quality is questionable within a work environment, the benefits of having these potentially lifesaving devices on hand cannot be overstated.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be considered a National Safety Council endorsement.

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