3M’s respiratory business has been established for over 40 years. The company released the first NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Health & Safety) approved respirator in the mid-1970s, and is launching its new 6500 series reusable half face respirator at OSH EXPO Africa 2014.

Jaco Combrinck, respiratory business manager for the Middle East and Africa, Personal Safety Division, says that while respirator technology is quite established, 3M continues to innovate in this arena. “We have been around for a long time, and have been doing this for a long time, and I think that is where our success stems from. We have the experience, and are also constantly innovating in order to improve our products.”

A major factor in such innovation is the issue of wearer comfort. “The main element that sells respirators is comfort, what we refer to as breathability, which means how easy it is to breathe through the respirator. No respirator is comfortable to wear, as it is not natural. We try to make the breathability as high as possible, which then speaks directly to the comfort. At the end of the day, if a worker is comfortable, he or she will wear the face piece for the entire shift, and that is the only way they can be protected.”

An example of this constant innovation is the new 6500 series reusable half face respirator, which combines the construction of the 6000 series half mask with the silicone technology of the high-end 7500 series half face respirator.

“The 6500 series respirator is being positioned as mid-range,” explains Combrinck. “It has a similar construction to the 6000 series in terms of a hard shell with a face seal moulded onto it. The 7500 series respirator, on the other hand, is a full-silicone face piece, with no over mould. What makes the 6500 respirator so unique, and why I am so excited about it, is that this is a cost-effective silicone face piece.”

Harsh environments like mining

Combrinck adds that the 6500 half face respirator is slightly textured and firmer in comparison to the 7500 series, which means it is suited for harsher working environments, such as mining and oil and gas. “We refer to this as ‘rugged comfort’, which is how we will market it. Therefore we get the best of both worlds: a lightweight face piece, with a silicone face seal.” The 6500 series is also available in a patented Quick Latch version, a feature that will be showcased at OSH EXPO Africa 2014.

Silicone is also capable of withstanding higher heat and facial oils, for example. However, it is a more expensive product, as silicone is difficult to work with and mould. This means it is currently only being manufactured in the US. 3M does manufacture the 8810, 8710 and 8820 disposable respirators locally though, which is something that Combrinck is particularly proud of, and wants to bring to the attention of the mining industry in particular. “We started local manufacture last year. It speaks to our commitment to South Africa. The fact that a prominent multinational like 3M invests in South Africa is a significant commitment.”

Combrinck adds that mining is a major focus for 3M at the moment, together with oil and gas. These major industries have a single division dedicated to them. “Mining will always be a focus, even with the turmoil we are currently experiencing. It is still one of the largest employers in our markets.”

The challenge for 3M is to convince mining clients to buy appropriate PPE (personal protection equipment). “It is a big spend, and the long-term benefits of protecting people from lung hazards such as silicosis and asbestosis are not always considered when choosing the correct respirator.”

Industry needs to look ahead

Industry needs to look further ahead and realise that spending R1 now on the correct PPE will save millions later. In addition to that, it is also a corporate social responsibility. Why expose a worker to a hazard and then not protect him or her?” Combrinck argues that replacing a single worker is not so straightforward, as it has to factor in the cost of experience and training.

The type of respirators selected by the mining industry depends on the application, notes Combrinck. “In an environment like underground mining, where the exposure is mainly dust and mist, there is not necessarily a need for reusable respirators. You also need to keep in mind that it is hot and humid down there, so we need to look at comfort first of all.

“Whereas with a minerals processing type of application, we now start to deal with vapours and gases, and you start to move away from disposable towards reusable respirators.” This could be the 6500 half-face respirator, or even a powered or supplied air option, depending on the exposure levels and application.

“When we carry out an assessment for a customer, the first question we ask is whether or not there is sufficient oxygen in your particular application or hazard. Is the oxygen level constantly above 19%? If it is not, our first response would be that you require supplied air. Once we understand the hazard, then we need to ascertain how long the workers will be exposed, and what the exposure levels are.”

Selection tools

Based on this information, Combrinck’s team is able to recommend the best products. “We also have a number of downloadable and online selection tools that will help you select the correct filter cartridges for the hazard level in question.” Be that as it may, Combrinck points out that the final decision is always the prerogative of the client. “At the end of the day, all we can do is make a recommendation.”

Combrinck explains that his team is capable of devising an entire respiratory programme for a client. “The first thing would be to carry out an assessment in order to understand the risk, then we recommend a suitable product, whereupon we will carry out fit testing with the workers.” The latter is critical due to the wide variety of face sizes and nose-bridge heights, for example. “There are a lot of factors that have to be taken into account, which is why we have three different sizes on our reusable respirators.”

Fit testing also provides an opportunity to train workers in the proper use of respirators. “Once you have done the fit testing and it seals properly, you now know what it feels like to have it on correctly, and then it is just a matter of reinforcing this through additional training.” 3M can also make marketing material such as posters and videos available for worker training.

“We take it a step further with such training in that we also show the workers how to inspect the face pieces properly before actually using them. We ensure it is in a good working condition, how to fit it properly, and then importantly also how to maintain the product.” If it is a disposable respirator, all that needs to be done is to discard it after use. “Reusable respirators take a bit more care to maintain, and we show workers exactly how to maintain them.”

Spare parts and maintenance

A full range of spare parts is also available, while 3M can even assist with a maintenance programme, called the Respiratory Care Centre, whereby cleaning is facilitated by a third-party service provider. “So the workers no longer have to worry about maintenance. If you think about it, when you come off shift after eight to ten hours, all you want to do is to go have a shower. Then what invariably happens is that the respirator ends up in a locker, with resultant hygiene and health issues.”

Commenting on Osh EXPO Africa itself, Combrinck says: “I am very happy to see how it has grown and matured into something we are proud to be associated with. I think it speaks to a much wider audience than a Mining Indaba, for example, which is very high level, and does not necessarily attract the type of people we would deal with on a daily basis as a sales force.” Combrinck notes that the expo is particularly useful because it attracts dedicated industry professionals such as safety managers and occupational hygienists and nurses.