Respiratory Hazards

Page prepared by: Ben Chen

Person interviewed: Jessica Cebula

When working with substances that have hazardous particulates, such as dust, minerals, and toxic fumes, one must take precaution regarding respiratory health. Increased breathing rates, accelerated heartbeat, and impaired thinking or coordination occur more quickly in an oxygen-deficient or other hazardous atmosphere. There are 12,000 deaths each year from occupational respiratory diseases, with breathing issues being caused or exacerbated by working.

The most common hazardous substances encountered in a workplace are:

  • Asbestos
  • Silica
  • Biological allergens
  • Metals (As, Be, Cd, Cr, Ni)
  • Toxic chemical fumes

Some of these agents are known to cause serious lung diseases, such asthma, asbestosis, and Chronic Beryllium Disease; many agents are carcinogens that can also lead to lung cancer.  Of course, each lab and their risks vary, and it is the PI’s responsibility to let workers know and be trained in accordance with their risks by OSHA law. It is important to look over the MSDS and know what you are dealing with.

Depending on the material, there may be OSHA standards to be met. For example, there is a new standard placed in effect on March 21 for Beryllium, with a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over 8 hours, and requires medical monitoring for those working with Be.  The PEL of Fluorine is 0.2 mg/m^3, and asbestos is 0.1 fiber/cm^3.

The lab should be equipped with:

  • Engineering controls: Fume Hood, Glove box, Automation

    Practice proper fume hood usage
  • Proper Respirators: 2 types, air filtering and air supplying; Use when Engineering Controls is not adequate for maintaining safe levels
    • The UW Safety Department does not recommend use of respirators in labs with proper engineering controls
Graphics Source: OSHA Small Entity Respiratory Protection
  • Proper building exhausts and ventilation:  state codes for buildings, OSHA recommends 4-12 air changes per hour for labs
  • Monitoring if required
  • Decontamination procedures and methods of waste disposal

Good Safety Practices

  • Perform all work under engineering controls properly
    • Keep at fume hood at sash height, proper glovebox antechamber usage
    • When compromised, know how to use PPE such as respirators
  • Clean up as you work, don’t let waste accumulate
  • Clean up areas of contamination
  • Dispose of waste properly – make sure waste is double bagged and decomtaminated
  • Have air monitors to constantly check areas of high risk
  • Do constant swipe tests for contamination areas
  • Wash up before breaks and leaving
  • Make sure everyone is properly trained

Do Not

  • Use methods that create/kick up a lot of dust such as power tools
  • Sweep up dust/debris
  • Eat or drink in work area
  • Take home contaminated materials or outside of the lab

Training should include:

  • PI should debrief on most risks that are needed to be known
  • UHS provides OSHA questionnaire, fit test, clearance, and general training for respirator usage
  • EHS has general training classes on fume hoods, abestos, and other safety concerns

Useful resources

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In the Engineering Physics Department


At UW Madison

  • Jessica Cabula – UHS Industrial Hygiene Specialist: (608) 890-3992
  • Jeff Zebrowski  – EHS Chemical Safety Officer: (608) 890-0993

State & Federal


Other specialized organizations, world-wide, and web-wide