How to protect yourself from respiratory dangers in the ag industry

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Two N95-type face masks, or respirators, sit in the foreground with an N100-type mask in the background. While cloth face coverings can prevent the spread of a virus, these masks are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to protect against particulates like viruses.

The AgriSafe Network offers tips and information to ag workers looking for guidance on how to wear a respirator and which respirator will do the job.

Charlotte Halverson, clinical director of the AgriSafe Network and occupational health nurse, says it's important for ag employees and companies to identify the different kinds of risks and exposures to certain respiratory dangers. She said it's also pertinent that appropriate protection is used because different situations call for different types and levels of protection.

Common types of exposure environments include concentrated animal feeding operations and feed lots, grain and hay handling, woodworking, welding and painting, as well as working with cotton, pesticides, ammonia and gas. While there are plenty of visible threats to health and safety, Halverson said another danger is respirable dust that often is not visible on surfaces or in the air. Respirable dust is smaller than normal dust and it can't be coughed up or sneezed out once it's in the lungs, often leading to serious illness. It's most often encountered when working with livestock feeding grain and bedding, but crop dust and mold are dangerous as well.

"You're working with cattle, hogs, poultry, any kind of animal, you're going to be dealing with some respirable dust just because of the dust that gets kicked up and then mixed in with things like insect pieces, animal feces, feed... all of that business," Halverson said.

Symptoms to look out for in cases of respirable dust inhalation include headache, dizziness, runny or sore eyes, throat and nose, cough, sneezing, wheezing, shortness of breath and nausea and vomiting, Halverson said. These symptoms can lead to more serious effects like farmer's lung (hypersensitivity pneumonitis) and organic dust toxic syndrome. She added that the time between exposure and onset of symptoms can be between a few hours and several days because of varying incubation periods for viruses and bacteria.

Those symptoms also overlap with symptoms of a gas leak, Halverson explained. If you ever suspect a gas leak or smell gas in the air, you should immediately evacuate and call emergency services.

Halverson said the dangers of ag jobs should be "engineered out" when possible to prevent incidences of exposure. Steps include eliminating unsafe working conditions, substituting them with safer policies and programs, redesigning the working environment, educating employees and encouraging personal behavior changes to stop bad habits.

Respirable dust particles are only about 10 microns in size, Halverson said – that's much smaller than a human hair, which measures about 75 microns on average.

"You can imagine how tiny those particles are," Halverson said. "What we get really worried about are the respirable dust particles that you don't really see."

Halverson said that in order to determine which respirator you should choose for the right situation, you should understand what each kind of respirator is designed to do, from a half-face to a full-face mask. There are three kinds of respirators: self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), supplied air and air-purifying mask. The most commonly used type is air-purifying because supplied air and SCBA types are not usually needed for what you will encounter in a daily ag environment.

Terry, who preferred not to give a full name, stands for a portrait outside Safeway in Phoenix on April 5, 2020. He's worn a respirator, which he typically uses for work, for the last week.

Air-purifying respirators have a filtering face piece that includes a filter, cartridge or canister through which the air outside is funneled, making it safe for you to breathe. These masks will start with N, R or P as an indicator of how strong the mask is: N is moderate, R is high and P is highest efficiency. There will also be a number to indicate how well the air you breathe is filtered: 95 (meaning 95% effiency), 99 (99% efficiency) or 100 (99.97% efficiency). For instance, the common N95 mask is used in lower-level exposure situations.

There are many different styles and brands available for air-purifying respirators, including half-face masks and full-face masks. Cartridges will also have different colors to indicate which use they are best for – green for ammonia, gray for organic vapor, yellow for acid gas and pink for multigas situations. It's important to remember that these are not always interchangeable with different brands, Halverson said.

"All these respirators, whether it's an N95 or higher, have got to fit tight to the face as not to allow absolutely no air leaks," Halverson said. "If it's worn correctly, it will filter out 95% or more of the particulates that you're exposed to."

Halverson said it's also extremely important to make sure your respirator fits correctly so that there are no gaps between the mask and your face to create a seal and keep out particles. If there are gaps, the mask will not effectively protect your body from potential exposure. You should have a fit check done every time a mask is worn, and it's handy to keep your face measurements on hand in case of fit checks.

You can also tell a bad respirator from a good one if it only has one strap instead of two and if the material is too thin to properly filter. Masks that don't seal to the face are not designed to protect your lungs. Halverson said ag workers should always err on the side of caution, and that pesticide handlers should always be wearing a respirator. Men should also be clean shaven or have a small mustache to ensure proper sealing, Halverson added, and women should not wear heavy makeup, which can break the seal.

"For some of our ladies that tend to wear heavy makeup, the heavy makeup can get in between, not allowing for a good fit," Halverson said. "Also, when you are fitting a respirator, worrying about your makeup is probably not going to be high on your priority list."

Respirators should always be stored in a cool, dry area with good airflow – never store them in closed plastic bags or containers because moisture can create mold, ruining the respirator. Halverson said there's a difference between washing and disinfecting. If a respirator ever needs to be washed, use soapy water, and if disinfecting is necessary, soak the respirator in bleach or another disinfectant for several minutes. You should immediately change out your respirator if you ever smell or taste any contaminant.