Environmental, Health and Safety Services

Respiratory Protection for Working with Biohazards

When is respiratory protection for biohazards required?

  • Respiratory protection may be required when personnel:
    • are working with a highly infectious respiratory pathogen, even in containment
    • are working out of containment in circumstances where exposure to an agent capable of causing respiratory infection is possible
    • must be fully protected from a potential respiratory pathogen when responding to a biological spill.
    • Working with potential sources of allergens (animal dander, mold spores, etc.) are at risk of an allergic reaction, or of developing serious allergies.
  • Respiratory protection for biohazards must filter microscopic particulates from breathed air; typically, they do not remove chemical fumes/vapors. Respirators for chemical hazards typically have canisters that scrub air for specific fumes and vapors; only certain categories of canisters filter out inorganic particulates. Thus, respirators worn for chemical protection usually do not offer biohazard protection.

How is the need for respiratory protection identified, evaluated and provided for at Virginia Tech?

  • A need for respiratory protection to prevent exposure to biohazards is determined through the Occupational Health Services review of your medical questionnaire, through an IBC protocol review for proposed research, or it may also be initiated by a Principal Investigator. In any case, you will be notified by EHS and given guidance on the next steps to follow for provision of your respiratory protection.
  • Respiratory protection may also be used in instances where, although not occupationally required, an individual feels more comfortable working with added protection. In this instance, respiratory protection can be provided at the discretion of the Principal Investigator who employs/supervises the voluntary user.
  • When respiratory protection is required for biohazardous work, the individual must participate in the Respiratory Protection Program, which involves:
    • A pulmonary function test conducted by EHS Medical Services staff.
    • A quantitative fit test, if a filtering facepiece respirator is to be used, to ensure proper fit.
    • Respiratory protection training (provided as an EHS online training module).
    • Annual renewal of fit test and training.

Respirator Types

  • EHS approved respirators used in the presence of biohazards fall into two categories:
    1. Disposable N95, N100 filtering facepiece, two-strap respirators
      (NOTE: P-series filtering facepiece respirators protect the user from oil droplets as well as particulates; oil is seldom a concern in a biolab, but P series disposable respirators can also be worn in these labs to protect against inhalation of biohazardous material.)
    2. Non-disposable loose-fitting powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR)
  • Surgical masks, single-strap dust masks, and bandanas are NOT approved to provide respiratory protection against biohazardous agents, aerosols, etc. (pictured below)

Further Information and Guidance:

Respiratory Protection Program