Qualitative Fit Testing

Federal regulations (29 CFR 1910.1001) require qualitative fit tests of respirators and describe step-by-step procedures. This test checks the subject’s response to a chemical introduced outside the respirator face piece. This response is either voluntary or involuntary depending on the chemical used. Several methods may be used. The two most common are the irritant smoke test, and the odorous vapor test.

a. Irritant Smoke

The irritant smoke test is an involuntary response test. Air purifying respirators must be equipped with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter for this test. An irritant smoke, usually either stannic chloride or titanium tetrachloride, is directed from a smoke tube toward the respirator. If the test subject does not respond to the irritant smoke, a satisfactory fit is assumed to be achieved. Any response to the smoke indicates an unsatisfactory fit.

The irritant smoke is an irritant to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. It should not be introduced directly onto the skin. The test subject must keep his or her eyes closed during the testing if a full face piece mask is not used.

b. Odorous Vapor

The odorous vapor test is a voluntary response test. It relies on the subject’s ability to detect an odorous chemical while wearing the respirator. Air purifying respirators must be equipped with an organic cartridge or canister for this test. Isoamyl acetate (banana oil) is the usual test. An isoamyl acetate-saturated gauze pad is placed near the face piece-to-face seal of the respirator of the test subject’s skin. If the test subject is unable to smell the chemical, than a satisfactory fit is assumed to be achieved. If the subject smells the chemical, the fit is unsatisfactory.

If the subject cannot smell the chemical, the respirator will be momentarily pulled away from the subject’s face. If the subject is then able to smell the chemical, a satisfactory fit is assumed. If the subject cannot smell the chemical with the respirator pulled away from the face, this test is inappropriate for this subject, and a different test will be used.

This test is limited by the wide variation of odor thresholds among individuals and the possibility of olfactory fatigue. Since it is a voluntary response test it depends upon an honest response.