Respiratory Protection Program

Columbia University has developed a Respiratory Protection Program to address the issues of potential exposure to airborne contaminants during work activities. When effective engineering or administrative controls are not feasible or practical in eliminating or minimizing potential exposures, or in emergency situations, the use of personal respiratory protective equipment, such as a respirator, may be necessary to protect the health of the individual. When used properly, the respirator assures adequate personnel protection.

The purpose of Respiratory Protection Program is to establish acceptable practices for approved respirator selection, use, and maintenance, as well as procedures for medical clearance and respirator fit-testing.  This program was developed in accordance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134. It applies to all Columbia University personnel who are required to wear a respirator to perform assigned duties or who choose to wear a respirator voluntarily.

Please contact [email protected] with any questions or to request an exposure assessment.

A Respirator is a device that is designed to protect the user from inhalation of potentially harmful contaminants, such as dusts, fumes, mists, or gases. There is a wide range of respirator types and sizes used for various purposes, but  two main categories are: the Air-Purifying Respirator (APR), which forces contaminated air through a filtering component, and the Air-Supplied Respirator (ASR), in which an alternate supply of fresh air is delivered to the user.

Air‑purifying respirators may be further divided into two major classes‑‑particulate removing (like N-95), and vapor and gas removing (like half-face and full-face).  In the former case, the removal process depends primarily on the size of the particulate, regardless of the composition.  In the latter case, the vapor or gas is adsorbed onto an activated charcoal media or chemical, which may be selective in the material adsorbed.

Three types of N-95 respirator masks
Half face respirator
Respiratory with face shield.

Air-supplied respirators depend on air or oxygen supplied from an external source. The air or oxygen is delivered to the user, protecting them from the inhalation of contaminants in the surrounding environment.

Mannequin wearing air supplying respirator
Oxygen supplying respirator pack.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established specific requirements to wear a respirator at work to ensure that the use of a respirator is necessary and the respirator selected is appropriate for the anticipated hazards. You must contact EH&S at [email protected] before using any type of respirator.

To determine if a respirator is needed to protect from exposures to airborne contaminants in the workplace, employee(s) should consult with his/her supervisor to determine various other options. If it is determined that the use of respirator may be necessary, the supervisor or employee should contact EH&S to perform an exposure assessment. An exposure assessment will determine the type of respirator that must be used for the potential airborne contaminants of concern. However, the following personnel/tasks are recognized as having the potential for exposure to airborne contaminants at concentrations above occupational exposure limits and/or that may be of concern to health and safety of workers, therefore personnel performing such tasks are recommended to use respirators.


  • Personnel from Environmental Health &Safety (EH&S) who respond to hazardous materials spills
  • Personnel from Institute of Comparative Medicine (ICM) as determined by the ICM Director
  • Personnel working in BSL-3 laboratories
  • Personnel working in the anatomical gift morgue
  • Personnel working in the Department of Pathology who pour formalin from specimen containers, in large numbers, into larger hazardous waste collection containers outside of a chemical fume hood


  • Personnel working in New York Presbyterian Hospital patient care areas, or with patients. 
  • Personnel working in the Emergency Department or consulting in the Emergency Department
  • Personnel performing or assisting during a procedure on a patient with influenza
  • Personnel entering respiratory isolation areas in New York Presbyterian Hospital or elsewhere
  • Personnel intubating or extubating patients
  • Personnel working with patients receiving aerosolized Ribovirin

An individual requiring a respirator must receive medical clearance from a physician or other licensed health care professional (PLHCP), be trained on proper use, limitations, care and maintenance, and fit-tested prior to use of respirator.  An individual who is not required to wear a respirator, but chooses to wear one voluntarily must comply with the requirements of Voluntary Use of N-95 Respirators, also known as OSHA Appendix D.

The use of half-face or full-face respirator on voluntary basis is not permitted.

To comply with the OSHA Respiratory Protection standard and Columbia University’s Respiratory Protection Policy, personnel required to wear a respirator must obtain medical clearance from a Physician or Other Licensed Healthcare Provider (PLHCP) prior to being issued a respirator at Columbia University or any remote site while conducting activities as a faculty, staff, student  or visitor representing Columbia University. Before making an appointment with PLHCP you must talk to your supervisor. Facilities personnel can obtain additional information from their respective campus Safety or Compliance office.

The purpose of medical clearance is to ensure that the user has adequate respiratory and cardiovascular fitness prior to wearing a respirator. Once it has been determined that an individual needs respiratory protection, he/she must get medical clearance from a PLHCP.  Medical evaluation must be repeated at a frequency recommended by the PLHCP, but no less than annually and prior to the required annual respirator fit-test.

Following campus specific information will help to obtain a medical clearance for fit-testing:

CUMC Campus

  • Employees recommended to wear a respirator by the supervisor can go to the Workforce Health and Safety (WHS), First Floor Harkness Pavilion (305-7590), to obtain medical clearance. (WHS will provide appropriate forms required for medical clearance).
  • Medical and Nursing students can go to the Student Health Service at 60 Haven Ave to obtain medical clearance.

MS and Nevis Campus

  • All personnel recommended to use a respirator should arrange with their supervisor to obtain medical clearance before fit-testing.

LDEO Campus

  • All personnel recommended to use a respirator should arrange with the Safety and Security Manager to obtain -medical clearance before fit-testing.

Each respirator user must talk to his/her supervisor to arrange for medical clearance from a Physician or Other Licensed Healthcare Provider (PLHCP) before making arrangements for a fit test. A medical clearance form, signed by the PLHCP, must be provided to the qualified individual performing the respirator fit-test. The following procedures outline Columbia University’s fit-testing process at various campuses:

N-95 Respirator Users

  • CUMC Campus –
    • Workforce Health and Safety (WHS), 1st Floor Harkness Pavilion (305-7590), will perform a respirator fit-test as part of the medical clearance process.
  • Morningside, LDEO and Nevis Campus –
    • After receiving medical clearance to wear a respirator from a PLHCP, contact EH&S at [email protected] to arrange a respirator fit-test.

Full-Face and Half Face Respirator Users

  • All Campuses –
    • After receiving medical clearance to wear a respirator from a PLHCP, contact EH&S at [email protected] to arrange a respirator fit-test.

Instructions for Fit Test Appointment with EH&S

  • All Campuses –
    • Fit test candidates must bring their own respirator (unless instructed otherwise by EH&S or their department).
    • Fit test candidates should arrive at their schedule time.
    • Fit test candidates should not smoke, drink, eat, chew gum/mint/candy, or brush their teeth 15-30 minutes prior to their fit test appointment.
    • The test shall not be conducted if there is any hair growth between the skin and the face piece sealing surface, such as stubble beard growth, beard, long mustache, or sideburns which cross the respirator sealing surface. Any type of apparel that interferes with a satisfactory fit shall be altered or removed.
    • Please review Fit Test Instructions linked here.


Single-use, disposable respirators (e.g., N95 respirator) must be disposed of after use or once soiled, damaged, or if it becomes difficult to breathe while wearing it, whichever occurs first.

Non-disposable respirators must be properly maintained to retain its original effectiveness.  Maintenance includes periodic inspections, cleaning, disinfecting, proper storage, and repair of respirators used by employees. If respirators are modified in any way, their protection factors may be reduced.


  • Respirators must be inspected before each use and during cleaning after each use. A record of inspection dates, findings, and repairs should be maintained.
  • All respirators maintained for emergency situations must be inspected at least monthly and per the manufacturer’s recommendations for proper functioning before and after each use.
  • Inspections must include:
    • A check of respirator function, tightness of connections and the condition of the face-piece, head-straps, valves, connecting tube, cartridges, and canister or filters.
    • A check of rubber or elastomeric parts for pliability and signs of deterioration.


Each respirator must be cleaned and sanitized. Frequency of cleaning and disinfecting are as follows:

  • An individually assigned respirator which is used routinely must be cleaned as often as necessary to keep it in sanitary condition.
  • Respirators kept for emergency/rescue use or fit-testing must be cleaned and disinfected after each use.


  • After cleaning, the respirator must be inspected to identify any defects or damage. Respirators which do not pass inspection must be removed from service and brought to the supervisor’s attention immediately.
  • All repairs must be completed based on manufacturer’s recommendations with replacement parts designated for the respirator.
  • Only a qualified person with proper tools and replacement parts should repair respirators beyond the manufacturer’s recommendations.


  • After a respirator has been inspected and cleaned, it must be stored in a manner that protect it from damage, contamination, dust, sunlight, face-piece deterioration, extreme temperatures, excessive moisture, and damaging chemicals. Manufacturer’s storage instructions are usually furnished with new respirators, and they should be followed.
  • Each non-emergency respirator must be stored in a plastic bag to protected it from contamination or damage, such as deformation of the face-piece or exhalation valve. Respirators should be allowed to dry after use and cleaning, prior to storage in a plastic bag as the respirator may be damp after use. The sealing of a damp respirator in a plastic bag prevents dryness and encourages microbial growth. Keep in mind that a respirator will become distorted and the straps will lose their elasticity if hung on a peg for a long time.
  • Cartridges must be stored, with their original seals intact, in their sealed plastic bag until ready for use.

Frequently Asked Questions about Respiratory Protection

In most cases, laboratory scale operations do not require use of a respirator. Use of a respirator is the last line of defense against chemical exposure. In a laboratory setting, engineering controls (adequate ventilation, chemical fume hoods) are used before a respirator would be used to reduce/eliminate chemical exposures. However, some tasks require the use of respirator and these will be assessed by EH&S prior to the respirator being selected and used. See "Do I Need to Wear a Respirator" above.

If you are working with hazardous chemicals and your work does not lend itself well working inside a chemical fume hood, call EH&S for risk assessment and to discuss options for working safely. It may be possible to substitute a less hazardous chemical, change the procedure, use administrative controls or use another facility within CU to safely accommodate your procedure. If the potential exposure cannot be eliminated or minimized then a respirator may be required. You should talk to your supervisor to explore all available options and risk assessment. To request EH&S for risk assessment, please complete this form. (Risk Assessment Form)

You must talk to your supervisor to arrange for medical clearance and selection of an appropriate respirator needed to protect you from hazards in your work environments. EH&S can also help in selection of a respirator as required by the OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) and the Columbia University Respiratory Protection Policy. For medical clearance, training and fit testing visit Medical Clearance for Respirator Use and How Do I Arrange a Respirator Fit-Test)

No. The selection of respirator depends upon the type of hazard. Discuss it with your supervisor or EH&S for proper selection of a respirator before purchase. Improper use of a respirator could result in serious injury or even death. Without medical clearance, proper training and fit testing use of a respirator is a violation of OSHA regulations and University policy.

The use of a respirator requires medical clearance from a Physician or Other Licensed Healthcare Provider (PLHCP). Follow directions outlined in Medical Clearance for Respirator Use.

Follow directions outlined in "How Do I Arrange a Respirator Fit-Test" above.

If risk assessment by EH&S shows that your exposure levels are below the OSHA regulatory safe limits, and there is no need to use a  respirator but you still want to use one, you should talk to your supervisor.  Under these circumstances, you may want to  use a Non- NIOSH certified respirator, which requires no medical clearance or fit testing. However, if you want to use NIOSH certified N-95 respirator, also called “dust mask”, you can do so but you must comply with requirements outlined inVoluntary Use of N-95 Respirators, also known as Appendix D. The voluntary use of full-face or half-face respirators is NOT allowed under Columbia University Respiratory Protection Policy. You must consult with EH&S before any such use.

Disposable respirators, such as N-95, cannot be disinfected and must be discarded if they are soiled, physically damaged, or reach the end of their service life. Replaceable filter respirators, such as half-face or full-face respirators, must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after each use, following the procedures outlined in Appendix - of the Respiratory Protection Policy.

Respirators with replaceable filters (for example full-face and half-face) are reusable, and a respirator classified as disposable may be reused by the same worker as long as it functions properly. All filters must be replaced and disposed of whenever they are damaged, soiled, or causing noticeably increased breathing resistance (e.g., causing discomfort to the user), as recommended by the manufacturer. Before each use, the outside of the filter material should be inspected for wear and tear.

Respirators must be stored to protect them from damage, contamination, dust, sunlight, extreme temperatures, excessive moisture, and damaging chemicals. Full-face or half-face respirators  must be packed or stored properly to prevent deformation of the face-piece and exhalation valve. Follow proper guidelines outlined in the "Maintenance and Storage of Respirators."