Choosing the Right Respiratory Protection

Choosing the Right Respiratory Protection

It is important for you and your workers to have confidence in your safety equipment.

When it comes to selecting respirators for the work environment, numerous resources are available from respirator suppliers, the OSHA respirator selection e-tool, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) and other resources. However, we can still end up with a wide and daunting range of choices and considerations.  

Is an N95 filter good enough, or should we be using a P100? Should we use an organic vapor or combination cartridge, and when do we need a filter? How long will cartridges last, including if we don’t use them regularly? 


Filters are used for solids or liquids suspended in air. The term “aerosol” includes any suspension of tiny particles or droplets in the air, such as dusts, mists or fumes.  

“Fumes” is a commonly misused term, and for respirator selection, it is important to distinguish between fumes and vapors. Fumes are solid particles generated by condensation, such as during welding—when vaporized metal condenses into solid particulate fumes.  

Vapors, on the other hand, are the gaseous form of a liquid or solid substance. It is possible for fumes to pass right through a vapor cartridge and also for vapors to pass through a filter. The correct terminology is important and for protection from fumes, we want a filter.  

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made everyone familiar with the term “N95.” This is commonly used to refer to the N95 filtering facepiece respirator, but the N95 designation applies to any filtering apparatus meeting the NIOSH specifications, including those used with half or full-face respirators. The selection of an N, P or R filter rating depends on the need for oil resistance, as oils can degrade the filter media. N is not resistant to oil, R is resistant to oil and P is oil-proof.  

The three levels of filter efficiency are 95 (95 percent), 99 (99 percent) and 100 (99.97 percent). The term “high-efficiency” or “HEPA” is used with filters for powered air purifying respirators with a 99.97 percent efficiency. 

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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