Respirator and Dust Mask Safety


Although falling off a ladder or cutting yourself with a sharp tool are the most common boatyard injuries, the risks we face from the foul air we breathe is more insidious, which is why a respirator or filter mask is an essential part of any do-it-yourselfers toolkit. This year, the Centers for Disease Control is advocating a strategy to ensure an adequate supply of respirator masks for medical professionals in the event of a wider outbreak of 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nC0V).

A variety of the half-mask respirators, full-mask respirators and “dust” masks (like the 3M P95 particulate respirator) that are recommended as protection against the 2019 novel coronavirus are also used in other industries, including boat repair, and the CDC strategy is meant to ensure that immediate public health needs are prioritized.

The CDC’s strategy announcement is directed toward large-volume purchasing and supply managers in government, health care, and major industries. It is unlikely that relatively small population of individual DIY boaters who need masks will make a dimple in the supply chain. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt if we, also, support this coordinated effort by reducing our consumption of masks.

One way to reduce mask use is substituting a less harmful material that does not require a mask for one that does. For example, many marine coatings and treatments—such as water-based bottom paints—generally do not require a mask or filter of any sort. You can confirm safety requirements by referring to the Safety Data Sheet (SDS)—formerly referred to as the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)—for the product you are using.

If you do intend to use a mask, the following offers some tips on proper care on use. For a more detailed look at what type of mask best suits your project–including a review of our highest rated full mask respirator–see our in-depth report on this topic The Best Respirators for the Boatyard.

Marine paints contain solvents that can make you dizzy at best or increase cancer risk at worst. Dust from sanding wood is usually only a nuisance, but sanding bottom paint or grinding fiberglass presents serious health risks. Fortunately, theres a wealth of industrial experience with contaminated air to draw upon, and by taking appropriate precautions, there is no reason working on the boat can’t be as safe as walking down the street.

Chemical risks can be identified by reviewing the Safety Data Sheet (SDS)-formerly referred to as the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)-for the cleaners, paints, solvents, and other hazardous materials you’ll be using. A Google search under the product name and safety data sheet should bring up the information you need. Review Section 3 (hazards identification), Section 5 (fire and explosion data), Section 8 (exposure controls/personal protection), and Section 11 (toxicological information). Specifically, Section 8 identifies the appropriate respirator cartridge type, although not the respirator classification, since that depends upon the expected concentration.

It is important to match the respirator cartridge with the chemical AND concentration. Vapors from some household cleaners and solvents can approach hazardous levels below decks. Active ventilation with fans and blowers can help reduce the risk.

Checking Fit

A respirator, vapor mask, or dust mask can’t protect you if it doesn’t fit your face. Its that simple. Anything that prevents a good seal-whether facial hair or a hollow under the side of your jaw-is unacceptable. In a workplace this fit test will be performed in a very rigid manner by a trained technician. However, for the sailor/occasional boat yard worker, we offer this shortcut procedure that is far better than nothing.

If you are farsighted, you can mount cheap reading glasses inside a full-face mask, such as the Scott AV-300, our top rated face mask.

Adjust the facemask to fit. Include any protective equipment you may wear, including goggles, eyeglasses, and hearing protection. Install organic vapor cartridges if applicable. Make sure any cartridge you use is certified by the relevant safety organization. In the U.S., this is the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Testing Safety Masks for Fit

The following test will work with partial, or with full face masks. Spray a fine mist of perfume into the air, so that it drifts down over your head. For a dust mask or particulate filter, a good dusting of black pepper or a spray of very salty water will also work. Now, grimace or smile broadly while repeating the alphabet for 15 seconds. Tilt your head up and down and rotate side to side while reciting. If you can smell the perfume, you failed the test. If the pepper made you sneeze or you taste pepper, you failed the test. Adjust the straps and start over.

Don’t assume the respirator model your dock mate swears by will fit you properly. Like shoes, its not just the size, its also the shape. Choose the one that fits you properly, and the pair it with the correct cartridge, as designated by. It will work.

If you have facial hair, full-face respirators can be more tolerant of mustaches than half-face respirators. Sometimes wetting the whiskers down with Vaseline helps. Trimming is the safest option.

Return any mask that does not pass this fit test. Worse than not functioning properly, it gives you false security.

Each time you use a cartridge-type mask, perform an inward leakage test. Remove or block the cartridges with tape, and try to inhale. It should suck to your face, with no leaks, and maintain the vacuum for at least a few seconds. This confirms you are wearing it properly and that it is not damaged. Adjust until it seals.

Clean after every use; if it isn’t clean, you might forego using it-at great risk. Store in a sealed ziplock bag after use. Don’t forget to order spare cartridges and parts before you need them.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. Darrell is booking speaking engagements in Colorado, Idaho, California, the Pacific Northwest, and British Colombia this summer. You can reach him by email at


  1. Filter cartridges start to degrade from the moment the seal on the packet is broken. Don’t expect a ‘new’ level of protection from filter that may have been used once but has been on the mask for a few months or more. Check with the manufacturer to get the life of a cartridge once opened.

  2. Very true. After EVERY use the mask should go in a freezer bag to reduce the amount of solvent the cartridges draw in from the ambient air. When spent the cartridges will either increase resistance to breathing or you will be able to smell the solvent. If the solvent or chemical has poor warning characteristics (no smell) OSHA does not permit using an air purifying respirator.

    It is a good habit to clean and inspect the mask after every use. It will be more pleasant to wear and will be ready. Don’t share masks.

  3. Suggestion: My career as chemical engineer in chemical manufacturing and environmental projects repeatedly found advantages to routine usage of positive-pressure masks/ hoods fed by *clean air versus depending upon the chances of masks with filter cartridges (what condition?) and facial seals (how pliable?) being 100% protective and simple for Rx glasses, particularly when “Murphy’s Law” throws at the worker threats of toxicity, mistakes, emergencies, weather extremes, etc. Yes, the typical positive-pressure air mask/hood equipment throughout a large USA factory must meet all the OSHA & etc. Regs. of the applicable government plus are expensive to set up and keep OK; yet, the key lesson in many trainings I attended, using findings from leaders (like DuPont, DOW, P&G) seemed to justify. For my boat/home jobs with toxic paints/solvents, sanding of fiberglass/metals/etc., cleaning toilet systems, etc., I’ve used DIY clear-plastic hoods (taped bag) long enough to tie an apron in front and fed plenty of clean air (from my son’s asthma-treatment air compressor) via a clear plastic hose (taped hose inside bag, near my nose). Some may question regulatory issues at my personal land; but, this keeps vapors & dust off my face and I can see with my glasses. Also, there are many commercial options for such positive-pressure and some seem economical (ie- from 3-M ) plus can add on portable battery-operated compressors.

  4. to: Prac.Sailor- FYI– 3M (+Ford) has a new PAPR- for worker protection from toxic/hazardous risks.
    Another option, vs. costly/ leaky 1/2 face respirators, that expose your eyes, face and head.
    Regards,  John B. Reeves  Mathews, Va.
    Ford and 3M collaboration leads to new PAPR ( Original Message )
    From: To:
    Date: April 13, 2020 at 9:57 PM
    Subject: 3M News- Ford and 3M collaboration leads to new PAPR

    On Tuesday, April 14, Ford will begin producing an all-new powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) design, developed in collaboration with 3M. This personal protective equipment (PPE) will help protect health care professionals on the front lines fighting COVID-19. This PAPR was rapidly designed and prototyped in accordance with federal guidelines and with 3M expert support and guidance in less than four weeks.
    Multimedia- Ford_PAPR.jpg (141.47 KB) 
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