Quantitative vs qualitative respirator fit tests: What’s the difference?

Workers must pass a “fit test” before being issued tight-fitting respirators, with two methods of testing available – quantitative and qualitative.

Both types of tests are used to determine if the disposable or reusable respirator has an adequate seal, by detecting if any air is leaking into the facepiece.

However, qualitative tests are pass/fail, based on the user’s sense of smell or taste, while quantitative tests use specialised equipment to measure exactly how much air is leaking through the seal.

Consequently, the application of the two methods varies slightly according to the Australian Standard AS/NZS 1715:2009, with qualitative tests only allowed to be used for half-face respirators, while quantitative tests can be used for half-face, full-face and powered air purifying respirators.

Regardless of which test is chosen, the respirator tested must be the same make, model and size as what the worker will use in the work environment.

They must also be tested wearing any other personal protective equipment (PPE) that they will use in conjunction with the respirator, such as ear muffs, safety goggles or prescription glasses, as these can also interfere with the seal.

Records of each fit test conducted should be kept, noting the date, the type of test performed, the type of respirator and the test result.

Aside from before a respirator is issued, fit tests should also be conducted at least annually, whenever a new make, model or size of respirator is issued and if there are changes to the worker’s facial characteristics, such as loss of teeth, weight change or facial hair changes.

Qualitative fit testing:

Qualitative fit tests involve the use of airborne substances that have distinct tastes or smells that can be detected by the user if there is a leak.

Substances that may be used for the test include:

  • Isoamyl acetate (banana smell)
  • Bitrex (bitter taste)
  • Saccharin (sweet taste)
  • Irritant smoke (coughing)

If the person detects the substance while wearing the respirator, then the test result is a fail. A new test should be completed after adjusting the respirator or choosing a different brand/size respirator.

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