Occupational Health and Safety: Respirator Masks for Wood Flooring

When you work in the wood flooring industry, serious health hazards are caused by sawdust effecting your lungs. You may not think about it, but if you have any sort of coating on the wood that you are machining, chances are that the sawdust is emitting fumes and toxic particulates into the air. Besides, there are all kinds of fumes that emit from wood floor work. Even if you are doing a quick repair or a small touch-up, it is always important to protect your lungs by wearing a respirator mask.

A long time ago, when contractors used to work on floors, they would only wear a bandanna to filter the air that they breathed. As we know today, this was an ineffective practice. With all the growing awareness of occupational health and safety, most floor contractors are now wearing respirator masks on job sites.

You may think your body is a good filter for toxins independently of a respirator mask. Your nose has long hairs inside it that act like little brooms to sweep away foreign particulates that enter your nose. For some pollutants your nose is enough of a filter. However, when it comes to wood flooring, your nose hairs are not capable of doing the job of keeping particulates and toxins out of your body.

There are many different styles of masks on the market. Some are simply designed for dust only. The most common dust masks are white and made from a very thin disposable cloth material. They cover the mouth and nose. The nose often has a small metal strip that can be bent over the nose to form to your nose. Typically, these masks have one or two thin elastics that hold them in place and prevent falling off. These masks do not have any filters that can be replaced. These are very similar to masks that you receive in the hospital that are allergy masks. As soon as you take your mask off, if it is not in a sealed plastic bag, contaminants from the air will stick to it. If this mask looks dirty and you are wearing it, you are breathing in the dirt that clings to the inside of your mask.

A dust mask is not respirator mask. Both a dust mask and a respirator mask have different purposes. For example, if you are only cutting floorboards to the correct length, you may only be contracting a bit of dust. In this case, a dust mask is suitable but there are some species of wood that emit toxins. If you are working with prefinished floor boards or floorboards that have had any coating for that matter, if you do something as simple as trim a single floorboard, the sawdust most likely will emit toxins. This is why only if you are entirely sure that your floorboards have always been bare wood and never been treated can you wear a dust mask. Otherwise, you must wear a proper respirator mask.

However, if you are working with a lot of dust or any materials that off-gas like solvents, a dust mask will do absolutely nothing to protect you. Sadly, many people are wearing dust masks when they are working on a floor for tasks like finishing and chemical stripping.

If you smell any fumes, your respirator mask is not protecting you. Sometimes newbies will put on their mask and smell nothing and assume that no vapors are being emitted. They take off their mask to smell and boy are they wrong! Their respirator masks are doing a very good job. A good respirator mask will not allow you to smell any vapors or gases. You don’t see vapor when doing floor work. Gases and vapors mix into the air and contaminate it.

Whatever your work may be with a product, whether you are using a solvent or a finish, it is always important to read over the MSDS sheets before using the product. The MSDS sheets will disclose VOC levels and any known health hazards when using the product and precautionary measures in handling the product. Even if you have been using a product for a long time and think it is safe, it still worthwhile to look at the MSDS sheets. You may be wrong in your judgement.

There are different finishes used on wood floors. Some of them are more toxic than others. For example, when working with a conversion varnish, it is safest to wear a full-face respirator. However, with less toxic varnishes, you can wear a half-face respirator and be safe.

It is important that the respirator mask fits you well. If the mask is not fitted to your face properly, your mask will not protect you sufficiently. The dimensions of people’s faces vary. If there is a gap between where the respirator sits on your face and the respirator itself, this is where leaks occur. Sometimes facial hair can be a deterrent to a properly fitting mask. Making sure that your mask fits you properly and comfortably is important for your health and performance on the job. When you exhale, the air should exit through the valve.

It is the law to wear respirator masks where there is a health risk. Workplace safety is regulated in the United States by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That said, if you have employees, it is your duty to make sure they are wearing suitable respiratory masks for the job.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Importance of Wearing a Respirator Mask When Sanding and Refinishing Wood Floors

Wood floor work poses health risks that may overtime effect your respiratory system. One of the best ways to prevent health hazards at the workplace is to wear a respiratory mask.

A respiratory mask is a more serious mask than a dust mask. Respiratory masks are designed to filter airborne particles effectively. They always have easy-to-replace filter pads that can be changed when they are clogged up. Respiratory masks are constructed out of a thick, durable, flexible rubber. This means that if fitted properly, they will create a reliable seal.

In the United States, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certifies respiratory masks. This certification is very credible. In fact, the NIOSH will revoke a certificate from a manufacturer if the masks fail to meet the National Institute’s performance requirements. For example, if a mask was initially built well but the manufacturer overtime got sloppy with quality control, that certification may be revoked. This revocation prevents the manufacturer from selling the masks if they contain the NIOSH approval numbers.

Both floor sanding and refinishing are serious health hazards if you are not wearing a proper respirator mask. The majority of floor finishes contain lead. This means that the sawdust you create from sanding a finished floor contains lead.

NIOSH did a study on the quantities of lead found from sanding and refinishing wood floors. They concluded that the quantity of lead emitted did not exceed the NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limit. Despite this research finding, if you are sanding and refinishing wood floors regularly, your body is accumulating more and more lead. Lead poisoning can cause death and in less serious cases, it can cause irritability, abdominal pain, seizures, and even coma. X-rays show lead deposits in the bones.

Given this knowledge regarding lead in floor finishes, as a contractor, you need to protect yourself. The way to do is to wear a proper respiratory mask on the job when you are sanding or refinishing a wood floor. The NOISH recommends wearing an N95 particulate respiratory mask. When you are looking to purchase a mask, make sure that it has this NIOSH approval number.

N95 respirator masks are fairly common so you should not have a problem finding one. The N series of respirator masks is classified as a mask for particulates only and not liquids (like materials in aerosol cans). The N95 means that the mask filters 95% of the particulates. This is why these masks offer you a high level of filtration. There are nine different classifications of respiratory masks given by the NIOSH.

Once you have your mask, it will last you a long time, but your filters will need to be replaced periodically. A filter is usually an activated charcoal cartridge. If they are dirty or damaged, it is time to get new ones. This is especially important because wearing a proper respirator mask with dirty filters means that your mask is ineffective.

As soon as you take your respirator mask off, if left in the open at your job site or even in your truck, you are allowing the filters to fill up with dirt. When you are not using your mask, you need to seal it in a plastic bag to insure that no dust will enter into the filters. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s advice on the package. Sometimes they will give tips on when filter pads should be replaced.

Aside from wearing the proper respirator mask, you can do whatever you can to minimize sawdust. Cleaning up properly is simple. For example, frequent vacuuming on the job is an easy way to rid sawdust. When you are vacuuming, you do not want to use any vacuum. You want to make sure that your vacuum is equipped with high-efficiency particulate air filters. Also, when you are about to eat or drink, it is important to thoroughly wash your hands. Otherwise, you could be eating your lunch with a dash of lead!

Here are some serious facts that are important to the health and safety of a floor contractor. Many floor finishes exceed the US federal action level for lead-based paints which is half a percent by weight. That said, given a typical 8-hour day at the job site buffing and during the final sanding, you are exposing yourself to more than one milligram per cubic meter of wood dust. This quantity of wood dust is considered to exceed the NOISH exposure limit.

Stated differently, there is a lot of lead lying around in that wood dust, some of which may not have even settled and may still be airborne. More specifically, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development federal clearance guidelines for a floor in a residential home are 0.43 milligrams per square meter. Think about the danger for small children who do not have a mature immune system yet. Even if you think you have cleaned the sawdust, it is necessary to be as thorough as possible.

Think twice before doing your floor job without wearing a proper respirator mask. It will protect your health.