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Respiratory protection for Painters – A Guide

Paint often contains a variety of chemical compounds that can be harmful if they are breathed in. While a short exposure is generally not life threatening, as a painter you are potentially exposed to harmful chemical compounds all day as you work. This potential exposure is why having proper respiratory protection is critical to ensure your safety and well being throughout your painting career. In this guide we are going to cover the three primary options available for respiratory protection plus cover a few often unknown facts that are important to be aware of to ensure you have proper respiratory protection while painting.

Important factors to consider about respiratory protection and painting

Before going over the benefits and drawbacks of different respirator options for painting, we need to first understand a few important factors. First, respirators function in one of two ways. Respirators can function to help purify the air by reducing the amount of harmful chemicals and other things like dust or they can function by supplying pure air to the respirator that comes from a source other than the area that the hazardous chemical compounds are present. Second, we should understand that there are different types of hazardous compounds in paints. Most hazardous paint chemicals have an odor, however some are odorless and tasteless, like Isocyanates. The problem with odorless tasteless chemicals like Isocyanates is that as a painter you will not be able to know your cartridge on a traditional purifying respirator needs replaced based on the common sign that you can smell the paint and thinner your using. Third, cartridge respirators are designed to provide proper protection only when they have created a tight seal around your face and are replaced frequently enough to ensure they are providing the protection they are designed for. Ensuring your respirator has formed a proper seal is done by completing a fit test which verifies your respirator is properly protecting you from unwanted chemical exposure.  Proper change out of your respirator cartridges will have a variety of factors to consider, typically change out schedules will be based on the chemicals the cartridges are filtering out or length of time since the filters have been changed, change out schedules should be completed based on a written policy.  3M provides a variety of resources to help determine change out frequency and suggests change out as frequently as every 8 hours for certain compounds, you can use their calculator here for better estimates as well based on the chemicals you will be filtering.  Now that we know there are two types of respirators, have some basic understanding of harmful chemicals that are present in paints, and know important steps that must be completed to ensure a respirator is providing proper protection, we can discuss respirator types for painting.

Paint Respirators Option 1 – Cartridge Air Purifying Respirators

Cartridge respirators are the most common respirator that is used for providing protection while painting. Cartridge respirators use carbon cartridges to filter hazardous chemicals from the air as you work. The benefits of cartridge fed respirators include that they are the most inexpensive way to get started with respiratory protection while painting and that they are readily available, additionally, they do not have any hose or a blower to worry about. They are also an effective way to prevent exposure to harmful chemicals when cartridges are changed out and proper fit testing is performed. The main drawbacks to cartridge fed respirators include that as a painter you have to pull air through the cartridges while breathing all day, which can over time become tiring.  Additionally, cartridge respirators over time wear out and require replacement of the cartridges so that they can continue to provide protection, this can be expensive long term.  Cartridges wearing out can also be potentially problematic for coatings that have isocyanates as you as a painter will not be aware of your cartridges needing replaced based on odor alone, with isocyanates and all uses you should maintain a regular cartridge changeout policy to ensure you are getting proper protection.  Finally, cartridge purifying air respirators require fit testing and shouldn’t be used with excess facial hair. Common cartridge filter respirators are below, some cartridge fed respirators filter out dust as well which can be important to know so that you select a respirator with proper protection for all the hazards you may be exposed to while painting.


Shop 3M Respirators


3M Paint Respirator



Paint Respirator Option 2 – Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR)

A powered air purifying respirator is similar to a cartridge respirator because it also filters air. However, a powered air purifying respirator pushes air from a pump to a hood that is worn by the painter, which is different than a cartridge respirator. The benefit to this is that it stops you as a painter having to pull air through a cartridge and you do not have to have a fit test if you use a loose fitting hood. However you still have carbon cartridges that must be replaced regularly to ensure that you are provided proper protection. Additionally, powered air purifying respirators are usually not designed for use when you are in an environment where there will be the presence of potentially explosive compounds like solvents. Compared to free air pumps, PAPR’s do not have a long hose you have to contend with.

Shop Bullard PAPRS – $1,448.00


Paint Respirator Option 3 – Free Air Pump Systems

A third option are free air pump systems. Free air pumps include a pump that is placed in an area where fresh air is present. The fresh air is pumped to a hood worn by the painter. The benefit to a free air pump system is that you do not have to pull air through a respirator all day. Additionally, you do not have to have a fit test if you go with a over the head hood. You do not have any cartridges with a unit like this because it is supplying fresh air rather than purifying harmful chemical compounds out of the air, meaning you will not have continual operating costs with a free air pump. Some of the drawbacks include that you have a hose that will follow behind you everywhere and that you must be sure that the pump is placed in an area where true fresh air is present, air that is free from carbon monoxide and any other potentially harmful contaminants.

Shop Free Air Pump Systems – $1,448.00



Long Term Operating Costs of the Different Options

Now that you have an overview of safety requirements and respirator options below is a table that shows the long term operating costs of various filtration options. Please note this table is based on replacement respirator cartridges costing about 9 dollars per set and being changed out every 3 days of frequent use, the powered air purifying respirator is based on change out costs of about $600 dollars and frequency of change out being about 2 times a year this will depend on the chemical exposure occurring and other factors.


Cartridge Respirator PAPR Free Air Pump System
Initial Unit Cost $20.00 $1,458.00 $1,448.00
Filter Change out Cost per set $9.00 $600 0
Filter changes per year(assumes 240 work days a year changing cartridges every 3 days) 80 1
Filter change out costs $720.00 $600 0



Final thoughts


Having a good understanding of respiratory safety and painting is critical to ensure you remain healthy over the course of your painting career. Having a plan of how you will address respiratory dangers associated with painting is critical.  Having an understanding of options to provide respiratory protection will help ensure you make a choice that provides the most cost effective and thorough protection for you.


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