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Lungs for life

Farmers regularly encounter an array of hazards that trigger respiratory problems. The list includes dusts, biological particles, pesticides/chemicals, and toxic gases. “Compared to other occupations, farmers have a high disability rate from respiratory conditions,” says Carolyn Sheridan, AgriSafe Network clinical director and Spencer Hospital AgriSafe director. The human body has natural mechanisms to protect lungs from airborne hazards, but very small particles are able to penetrate. Breathing through the mouth also bypasses the body's filtering system. Lung damage is cumulative, and the symptoms include:

● Tightness in the chest

● Shortness of breath

● Persistent cough

Engineering controls are the best way to assure a healthy working environment. Air contaminants can be removed from shops and confinements with a ventilation system including hoods, roof vents, and high-speed intake and exhaust fans.

One size doesn't fit all

Respirators are the next line of defense. Respirators either purify the existing air with filters, cartridges, or canisters, or they supply clean air through a compressor or compressed air cylinder.


Dust masks don't protect in oxygen-deficient areas or against gases, chemical vapors, or mists. A proper fit is critical. Use only NIOSH-approved filtering face pieces (such as N95, N100, or P100) for biological contaminants.

A powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) has a battery-powered fan that blows filtered air inside a tight-fitting respirator or a loose-fitting hood or helmet. Facial hair may interfere with a proper fit.

“If your respirator moves off your face when you breathe in or out, it's not a good fit,” Sheridan says.

High-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters are available for PAPRs. Check the batteries regularly, because if they are low, and don't draw air through the filter, your protection is compromised.

A supplied air respirator or self-contained breathing apparatus is required in low-oxygen areas (manure pits or silos) or if the exposure is immediately dangerous to life and health, or there are heavy concentrations of toxic contaminants.

It's important to choose the right respirator for the task, obtain a snug proper fit, clean it regularly, and maintain and store it properly. For best protection, change filters, cartridges, and canisters according to manufacturer instructions.

Two five-minute videos, along with information about proper fit, can be downloaded at OSHA's respiratory protection page at

Respirators make it more difficult to breathe, especially for people who smoke or have medical conditions such as asthma, allergies, pulmonary diseases, high blood pressure, heart disorders, or claustrophobia. Be sure to consult your doctor.

Purchase respirators at farm supply stores, ag chemical suppliers or at AgriSafe Network's Safety Store. 

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