Tricks of the trade

Top 3 tips for choosing the best respirator masks to breathe safely on the job

Robbie Foglia, a Ferguson author

by Robbie Foglia


Respirator masks are essential for protecting the short and long-term lung health of trade professionals. Whether you’re a plumber, builder, HVAC contractor, painter, insulator or work in another area of the pro trade industry, there are numerous potential breathing hazards on any given jobsite. These workplace hazards factor into why failing to properly use respiratory protection landed as the fourth highest OSHA safety violation of 2015. Below are some personal respirator basics to help you pick the right respirator and breathe better on every job.

1. Know the types of respirators available.

According to OSHA, there are two main types of respirators:

Atmosphere-supplying respirators

Areas that have contaminated air or have limited or no oxygen require this type of respirator. Occupations that require this type of respirator could include industrial plant workers, municipal road pavers and surfacers, hazardous material response professionals and welders and pipefitters.

Air-purifying respirators

This type of respirator is commonly used by trade professionals. Air-purifying respirators filter contaminants out of the air as you breathe. There are three main types of air-purifying respirators:

  • Particulate respirators - Use this type of respirator when working around heavy amounts of dust, dirt and non-toxic vapors, such as when sanding wood or hanging fiberglass insulation.

  • Pro tip - The N95 mask is a commonly used respirator in this category, and is rated to filter 95% of particulates from the air.

  • Gas and vapor respirators - Use this type of respirator when working in areas that have high levels of gases and vapor in the air, such as on construction sites during the painting application process.

  • Combination respirators - These respirators are dual purpose and filter the air from both particulates and fumes. For example, you should use a combination respirator on construction demolition sites as both dust and fumes could be present.

  • Pro tip - Gas and combination respirators require chemical cartridges to filter toxic fumes. Cartridges are labeled using an industry-wide color coding system to indicate which gases or vapors they are capable for filtering. Use the chart below to guide you to the right cartridge.

2. Determine the respirator fit you need.

OSHA categorizes respirator fit between two distinct categories: tight-fitting and loose-fitting. The respirator fit you need will depend on the air quality in a work space. If the air is contaminated by toxic substance or is lacking oxygen, then it is said to be immediately dangerous to life or health, or IDLH.

Tight-fitting respirators

  • Must be worn in areas that are determined to be IDLH.
  • Are required by OSHA to be fit-tested by a qualified tester the first time it is worn and at least once annually after that.

Loose-fitting respirators

  • Can be worn in areas that are not determined to be IDLH.
  • Do not need to be fit-tested according to OSHA requirements.

3. Consider respirator size and seal.

A respirator must be the right size in order to create a seal around the face. This is especially true for tight-fitting respirators. Because all respirators fit differently, employers must provide a range of different respirator sizes and models for their crew in order to comply with OSHA regulations. Several things that can compromise respirator seal including:

  • Eyeglasses and safety goggles
  • Beards and facial hair
  • Facial piercings
  • Dental gear
  • Facial structure

Be sure to inform your crew about things that can impact respirator seal and enforce compliance on the jobsite. Protect the health and safety of yourself and your crew with our online selection of respiratory safety products >>


Find the right respirator cartridge for different gases

Type of contaminant Cartridge color
Organic vapor Black
Acid, ammonia and organic gases Brown
Carbon monoxide Blue
Ammonia fumes Green
Acid and organic gases Yellow
Acid gases White
Robbie Foglia, a Ferguson author

Robbie Foglia

Robbie Foglia, a native of Norfolk, VA, brings 10 years of experience in digital media writing to Ferguson, where he authors informative content for plumbing, HVAC and general contractors about trade trends, new tools and tips for improving your contracting business.