Renovation & Design

MIKE HOLMES: Respirator an essential tool

I remember the days when if you had work boots and a hammer, you were good to work on a job site. Back then, a lot of contractors would demolish a house without thinking about the potential risks, such as asbestos, mould and lead paint.

You hear the stories. Young kids, just starting to work in construction, doing demolitions on homes that have asbestos without any protective gear. Even some of my guys can tell you stories when they worked on other crews. They joke about it now that they know the risks: "There goes 10 years off my life." But it's a serious problem. Working in hazardous conditions takes a toll on your health.

This goes for homeowners and DIYers, too. You need to protect yourself when doing jobs around the house. Anyone with respiratory problems knows how important it is to protect your lungs. But even today some people are reluctant to use respirators.

Sometimes it's a comfort issue -- working with a respirator is awkward. It's hot and it can make working more difficult. Other times, it has to do with time and costs -- having the right respirators and being properly trained to use them takes time and money.

If you're in a rush to get a job done, you might not think it's worth the extra time. But then ask yourself: How important is breathing to you?

Any time there are contaminants in the air, you need to use a respirator. Contaminants can be anything from vapours, mists, gases and fumes to actual debris such as dust, sawdust -- even metal particles.

Having the right protection depends on three things: choosing the right respirator, knowing how to use it properly and knowing how to take care of it.

However, choosing the right respirator isn't easy. Will you be using it when there's more than one contaminant in the air? Is the contaminant a gas, vapour, fume or debris? What conditions are you working in? What are the temperatures? Are you working in an enclosed area? How long will you be wearing the respirator? This all matters.

There are mainly two types of respirators: air-purifying respirators (APRs) and supplied-air respirators (SARs).

APRs are the most common. They're used for general jobs such as sanding, spray-painting and basic demo. Some work with filters or cartridges, such as half-masks and full-masks. Others don't, such as dust masks. APRs that use a filter trap particles as you breathe in. Those that use a cartridge, such as gas masks, absorb gases and vapours.

Then there are SARs. These respirators feed clean air to the user from a compressed air tank. SARs are used for serious jobs such as remediation or installing spray-foam insulation. The average homeowner shouldn't need an SAR. If a job requires one, call a pro.

Dust masks cover your nose and mouth. They provide minimum protection. This makes them disposable. You throw them out after every use or when they're full. How do you know they're full? They look dirty and you'll notice it gets harder to breathe.

Half masks require filters and cartridges you attach to the respirator. These masks are good for heavier jobs when debris or particles are in the air, such as sanding or spray-painting. Replace filters before they clog and cartridges before they're full. A clogged filter makes it harder to breathe. A full cartridge will start to leak. In both cases, you're breathing in contaminants. Not good.

How often you replace filters and cartridges depends on how quickly they're getting full. If you're a heavy breather, you'll clog them faster.

Full masks provide the same breathing protection as half masks, but they also have a visor for eye protection. Whether a full mask is better than a half mask depends on the job.

Some people might think a full mask is better, but we have to remember that full-mask respirators are uncomfortable. You might want to take it off more often than a half mask, which defeats the purpose. If that's the case, wearing a half mask with safety eyewear might be a better choice.

In the end, it depends on what a safety professional recommends, what the MSDS (material safety data sheet) of the materials you use dictates and your working environment. Why is environment important? Because some contaminants, such as oil, are known to break down certain filters.

No matter what respirator you have, the manufacturer's instructions are the be-all and end-all for using it the right way and how to take care of it.

They tell you what filters and cartridges to use, how to put the respirator on (don) and take it off (doff) properly, and how to do a seal check. It's different for every respirator.

Every time you use a respirator, you need to do a seal check. If the mask isn't sealed, it's useless.

A beard, long sideburns and even stubble break the seal. My guys shave if we're using respirators on a job. Luckily, I don't have to worry about the girls on the crew.

If you don't wear a respirator when you should, you'll be seeing interesting stuff for a week every time you blow your nose. But more importantly, you're risking your lungs. No job is worth that.

For more information on how to choose, use and care for respirators, contact the Canadian Standards Association. You can also contact governmental occupational health and safety officials in your area.

Catch Mike in his new series, Best of Holmes on Homes, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV. For more information, visit . For more information on home renovations, visit


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