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Aspire or Expire?

June 3, 2021
Lung damage often goes unseen as it occurs, which is what makes it so dangerous.

If you cut your finger, you probably notice right away. You may bandage it up and then don a pair of work gloves to prevent another cut. Lung damage isn’t like that. Debilitating lung conditions, such as pulmonary fibrosis, may develop over several years. Fibrosis occurs when the tissues thicken in response to damage. It reduces the ability to breathe, and there is no cure for it. If it becomes progressive, then death is like drowning except it takes much longer.

The attackers

Particles or vapors can attack lung tissues. The term “vapors” includes all lung-harming gases.

  • Particles, such as smoke or dust, can lodge in the lungs. As particles accumulate, they impair a section of the lung just by their presence. If they contain sharp edges, they may cause scarring. There is no way to remove such particles, so don’t let them into your lungs in the first place.
  • Vapors, such as varnishes, can harden in the lungs. There is no way to remove the varnish, although it may break into sharp-edged particles that cut lung tissue. Acidic or caustic vapors act directly on lung tissue, sometimes destroying it.

Protection from particles

Sources of particles include cigarette smoke, marijuana smoke, wood smoke, process material particles in operating plants (rubber, plastic, metal, etc.), common dust, and particles from construction operations, such as drilling or cutting into metal, fiberglass, concrete, plaster, and other materials.

Non-dust particles from smoking tobacco or marijuana cause mechanical damage to lung tissue. Because the damage from these sources tends to accumulate slowly, people incorrectly assume there is no damage from the particles. The advice here is to protect your lungs by limiting or eliminating exposure.

For other non-dust particles, you might not be able to eliminate exposure. For example, you work in a plant where airborne fiber particles are a result of necessary processes within the plant. Avoiding the places with the highest concentrations will help. To protect your lungs, however, you will have to wear a respirator appropriate for those particles.

Dust mitigation

Reducing dust at its source is part of a larger strategy. One reason for using water when coring concrete is to reduce airborne dust. Tools continue to be designed with built-in mitigation features such as dust collectors. See what is available for the type of work you are doing.

When cutting any material, use sharp blades and bits. This sounds obvious, but in practice, blades and bits tend to be used past their replacement condition. Depending on what you are cutting, a lubricant should be used. It also decreases tool wear and dust.

Making fewer passes when drilling will also reduce the amount of dust generated. One pass with a hole saw instead of four passes with progressively larger drill bits will not only reduce dust significantly, but it will also take less time. Similarly, a step bit reduces exposure time by getting the job done in one pass.

Dust collection

You can buy add-on dust collection systems for power tools used for boring, cutting, or grinding operations. You can also find newer generation tools with these features already built-in (sometimes combined with dust mitigation features).

Dust collection systems must be maintained. Check yours before and after use to ensure any bin or bag is empty and any chute or tube is unclogged. If the dust level seems to rise as you continue using the tool, the dust collection system probably needs attention. Stop to see what’s wrong.

Protection from vapors

Sources of toxic vapors include cigarette smoke, marijuana smoke, vapes, chemical storage areas, industrial processes, solvents/cleaners or paints/varnishes used in maintenance and construction, and fuel storage/handling.

Company policy is a good first defense against harm from recreational smoke and the undisclosed chemicals used in vaping fluids. At the very least, company policy should protect the lung health of non-users. For the other sources of vapors, ventilation is a common first defense. Check the SDS for safety recommendations.

Displacing, removing, or diluting the vapors from industrial processes is a bit different from doing the same for “individual use” or stored sources of vapors. The mitigation is often built-in (e.g., ventilation hoods) or procedural (e.g., purge before entering).

Storage presents an opportunity for mitigation. Often, the presence of vapors in the maintenance shop is caused by cans containing solvents stored in the same types of cabinets as test instruments, tools, and instruction manuals. Containers that have flammable solvents should be stored in a flammables cabinet. Set that cabinet outside the normal work areas, and you greatly reduce employee exposure to vapors during storage.


A problem that arises with respiratory personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks or neck gaiters worn to reduce disease transmission, is that users tend to breathe through their mouth. This is a natural response to the air restriction caused by respiratory PPE. In addition to drying the gums and increasing the risk of gingivitis, mouth breathing bypasses the natural filtration system of the nose. Be aware of how you’re breathing.

How do you know which respirator to use? Normally, the respirator choice is made for you in the work procedure and/or SDS. Typically, you wear a fiber mask to protect against particles. The mask must have a rating suitable for the expected particle size. Such masks offer no protection against vapors.

Vapor protection means are stated on the SDS of the chemical you are using, on the confined entry permit of the vessel you are entering, or on the work procedure you are using. The selection follows this logic. When selecting PPE for vapor protection, you must determine if you need to filter vapors out or to bring air in. You might filter vapors out by wearing a charcoal respirator to protect against the solvent you are using. You might bring air in from a body-mounted portable air canister or by using a hose connected to an outside air supply.

To use any respirator other than a dust mask, you must be clean-shaven and (per OSHA) qualified to use it. Two things can impair your ability to use a respirator:

  1. Smoking or vaping within several hours before use. Smoking increases the carbon monoxide in your blood. Vaping formulations are not standardized, regulated, or monitored; they are a wild card that is best avoided entirely.
  2. Allergies or pathogens that result in clogged or running sinuses. If you have 15 minutes before using the respirator, you can flush sinuses using a saline spray or neti pot with saline solution. Another option is a decongestant nasal spray. If you choose to do this, use it sparingly to prevent the rebound effect. Taking an antihistamine can prevent more mucus generation, but it may induce drowsiness.

Don’t forget the respirator check you learned as part of becoming respirator qualified. Perform this with each use. This includes checking the fit, vent port(s), tank pressure (if applicable), and the sealing area condition. Also, if you are older, you should use eye drops or artificial tears before donning a full-face respirator.

If anything feels wrong while you are wearing a respirator, stop work immediately. Signal any coworkers present that you are leaving. Then go to a “clean air” area, and resolve the issue before resuming respirator use. If a coworker who is wearing a respirator starts showing symptoms of distress or even panic, motion for him to leave. If someone motions for you to leave, do so without argument.

After each use, remove and discard any cartridges or filters. Next, clean your respirator using the method you learned in qualification. Store it per the recommended method.

Take a deep breath and repeat after me

Can you take a deep breath? Try taking several slow, deep breaths in a row. How does that feel in your chest? Many people cannot do this without coughing, feeling pain, or both. Their lungs have lost a great deal of elasticity. Consider taking a spirometer test, which measures your lung capacity and how forcefully you can inhale and exhale.

Lungs that have been unprotected from and subjected to dust and vapors often have a profound loss of gas exchangeability. The gas exchange happens between tiny “alveoli” and tiny blood vessels, both of which are easily damaged.

You need both capacity (volume) and transfer (gas exchange) for your lungs to supply your body’s oxygen needs. Damaging a lung isn’t like spraining an ankle; it won’t heal if you just “stay off it” for a while. That’s why unwavering commitment to consistent lung protection is your only good option.

Lamendola is an electrical consultant located in Merriam, Kan. He can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Mark Lamendola

Mark is an expert in maintenance management, having racked up an impressive track record during his time working in the field. He also has extensive knowledge of, and practical expertise with, the National Electrical Code (NEC). Through his consulting business, he provides articles and training materials on electrical topics, specializing in making difficult subjects easy to understand and focusing on the practical aspects of electrical work.

Prior to starting his own business, Mark served as the Technical Editor on EC&M for six years, worked three years in nuclear maintenance, six years as a contract project engineer/project manager, three years as a systems engineer, and three years in plant maintenance management.

Mark earned an AAS degree from Rock Valley College, a BSEET from Columbia Pacific University, and an MBA from Lake Erie College. He’s also completed several related certifications over the years and even was formerly licensed as a Master Electrician. He is a Senior Member of the IEEE and past Chairman of the Kansas City Chapters of both the IEEE and the IEEE Computer Society. Mark also served as the program director for, a board member of, and webmaster of, the Midwest Chapter of the 7x24 Exchange. He has also held memberships with the following organizations: NETA, NFPA, International Association of Webmasters, and Institute of Certified Professional Managers.

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