We’ve all been there. Whether you’ve sat through a painfully prolonged deathly silence, or perhaps caught the tail end of a toxic argument – we’ve all experienced atmospheres so thick with tension that we’ve pleaded for the ground to swallow us up. But perhaps next time we should instead think ourselves lucky that the atmosphere in question is one of social awkwardness, rather than – as is the case for workers in oxygen deficient atmospheres – a genuine matter of life and death.

Take a deep breath in. And slowly exhale. And another deep breath in, feeling the expansion of air in your chest and abdomen; and slowly exhale again. Relaxing, isn’t it? Maybe you go so far as to close your eyes for a few moments and picture a beautiful, tranquil setting. But now, imagine quite the opposite: you’re in a confined space, carrying out a difficult job that would stress you out in any environment, let alone while working against the clock, knowing that with the hard conditions and your elevated breathing rate, the 30-minute tank of your SCBA will likely last half that time.

“If only the air we breathe didn’t keep trying to kill us!”

What a luxury to be able to take breathing for granted, yet, with the right risk assessments, clued up colleagues and proper PPE that you’re familiar with and feel confident and comfortable in, you can feel as happy in a confined space as you would curled up on the sofa.

It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it: I’m looking at you, firefighters, confined space workers, and everyone else working in oxygen deficient atmospheres. If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times: “If only the air we breathe didn’t keep trying to kill us!” But the fact of the matter is, in those environments risk can seldom be completely removed. That’s why – since life is short and we needn’t make it any shorter just to earn a buck – we must stay protected and prepared. “But how?” I hear you cry. Given the complexities of these environments and the height of the stakes it’s no small task, but knowledge is power, so let’s get armed.


It almost goes without saying by now, but when planning a job follow the hierarchy of risk, and if you don’t need to send people into the line of fire then don’t. Simple as that. There’s no more kudos associated with doing a job while in unnecessary danger; far better to carry out as much work as possible in the lowest risk environment.

“when planning a job follow the hierarchy of risk, and if you don’t need to send people into the line of fire then don’t”
In case you need reminding, in order of priority in the hierarchy of risk, you’re looking at:

  • Eliminate – remove hazard
  • Substitute – replace hazard • Engineering controls – isolate people from the hazard
  • Administrative controls – change how people work
  • PPE – lastly, protect each worker on a personal level

  • Now, the hierarchy of controls is obviously a go to, an essential tool for every safety professional, but bear with me while I momentarily contradict myself.


    For many different areas of safety, say working at height or guarding against slips and trips, we of course focus on the hierarchy’s progress down through the levels in an orderly fashion, eliminating and substituting as we go. Of course that’s preferable; however, when you get to a hazard that can’t be eliminated, substituted, engineered out or controlled via admin, PPE becomes pretty darn important. So, when you’re dealing with work that needs conducting amidst toxic air quality – and despite mitigation the risks remain high – then that PPE becomes of incredible importance.

    More specifically, in accordance with the laws governing the control of harmful substances in the workplace and their supporting Approved Codes of Practice (ACOP) you should only use RPE in the following circumstances:

  • Where residual risk remains despite having other controls in place
  • While interim control measures are taking effect
  • For emergency work or temporary failure of controls where other means of control are not reasonably practicable
  • For short-term or infrequent exposure, such as during maintenance work, where you decide that other controls at the source of the exposure are not reasonably practicable

  • Deciding to use RPE doesn’t just mean donning any old face mask to look compliant when Mr Clipboard does a mandatory tour of the worksite, oh no no. Think respiratory protection is all the same? Think again. Respiratory protective equipment is split into two distinct camps: respirators and breathing apparatus, and those types are worlds apart when it comes to the scenarios in which they should be used.


    Using filters to remove airborne contaminants, these respirators are commonly used when welding, handling dusts, cutting or grinding materials, or using chemicals that emit solvents.

    Respirators can be powered or nonpowered, either using a motor to pass air through the filter, or using the wearer’s breath to draw air through the filter, respectively. Depending on the hazard the wearer will encounter, different filters are available to protect against solid or liquid particles, vapours and gases.

    Breathing apparatus

    Breathing apparatus, on the other hand, requires an independent supply of breathing-quality air. This can be from an air compressor or air cylinder.

    Since by definition breathing apparatus needs a supply of breathing-quality air from an independent source, it is the only form of RPE suitable for use in oxygen deficient atmospheres that are immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH).

    According to OSHA, atmospheres that are, or are potentially, immediately dangerous to life or health are defined as having: “Atmospheric concentration of any toxic, corrosive or asphyxiant substance that poses an immediate threat to life or would cause irreversible or delayed adverse health effects, or would interfere with an individual’s ability to escape from a dangerous atmosphere.”

    The table below outlines the effects of exposure to oxygen deficient environments.


    All the gear, no idea. It’s a phrase generally reserved for that person who, on a whim, purchases every single piece of (usually high-end) kit they deem vital to engage in an activity, without any knowledge of what they really need, what to do with it, or if they’ll stick at it long enough to need said swag. Well, the same phrase comes to mind when considering people who are handed their respiratory protection and sent on their way. It’s one thing having the right kit, but unless you’re trained to use it, it’s as good as useless.

    All respiratory protection, whether powered, non-powered, air supplying or filtered, must meet the following criteria.

    Adequate control

    All respiratory protection must provide ‘adequate’ control of inhalation exposure. There’s no use in sending someone off to sand some wood kitted out in full SCBA, it would be absolute overkill. Likewise, giving someone a particulate filter mask and popping them into a confined space is likely to end badly. As with any PPE, more is never better; only the correct level keeps us optimally protected, which is why fully understanding the hazards present is of such importance.


    Not only should the RPE be suited to the task, it must also be suited to the wearer. For tight fitting facepieces this is ensured through face fit testing. When the use of BA is in question the quality of supplied air should also be tested periodically, at least every three months. For an easy to follow breakdown of whether RPE is adequate and suitable, see the HSE’s Practical Guide to Respiratory Protective Equipment at Work.

    Approved type and standard

    Approved types and standards vary country to country, but if in doubt ensuring a product has CE markings is an excellent place to start. When it comes specifically to guidelines in the Middle East, let’s look briefly at those for Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

    The Government of Dubai’s guideline on Personal Protective Equipment for Respiratory Protection was issued by the government in pursuance of Local Order No. 61 of 1991. It stipulates that all employers of designated industries must provide free of cost equipment for the respiratory protection of employees. It is the responsibility of the employer and supervisor to provide proper selection, maintenance, training and use of the respiratory protective equipment. Dubai’s guidelines cover three types of respiratory protective devices: air purifying devices, air-supplied respirators, and self-contained breathing apparatus.

    “breathing apparatus is the only form of RPE suitable for oxygen deficient atmospheres”

    Moving onto Abu Dhabi, and the Abu Dhabi Framework Code of Practice 2.0 for Occupational Safety and Health System: Personal Protective Equipment. This framework dictates that wherever an employee is subject to airborne contaminants in excess of the threshold values, it is the prime duty of the employer to provide respiratory protection equipment to the employees. Employers must establish a written Respiratory Protection Programme which requires site-specific procedures. In addition, employers must have a designated ‘competent person’ who is trained to supervise and administer the respiratory protection programme.