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100 Years of Respirators

An estimated 5 million U.S. workers are required to wear respirators for their jobs. Respirators are a critical piece of personal protective equipment that protect the lungs of workers including miners, healthcare professionals, and first responders. Learn more about the history of respiratory protection.

People standing against a car wearing the “Proto” breathing apparatus in the early 1900s.

The Bureau of Mines was home to the first federal respiratory protection approval program.

In 2020, the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first federal respirator approval. This milestone honors both the history and the future of the efforts by researchers and practitioners to protect workers from airborne hazards.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines initiated the first respirator certification program in 1919. By January of 1920, they issued the first respirator approval to protect miners from oxygen-deficient and toxic atmospheres. Through two world wars and the introduction of chemical warfare agents, various inhalation and environmental threats, and advances in science and technology, respirator protection expanded and became even more exact and suitable for varied industries and occupations. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 set standards to protect workers and there was a significant move from advisory to mandatory protection.

What CDC is Doing

Today, the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) at NIOSH is responsible for respirator certification. NPPTL carries out research, testing, and postmarket activities specific to respirator protection and other personal protective equipment. One of the primary functions of the laboratory is to safeguard the quality of respirators on the market for occupational use through the testing procedures within the approval process. This process ensures a standard level of filter efficiency for all respirators used in U.S. workplaces. NPPTL’s respirator approval program exists to increase worker protection from airborne chemicals and vapors and reduce the amount of worker illnesses.

While the appearance of respirators has changed over the past 100 years, the goal remains the same: to protect workers from respiratory hazards on the job—from emergency responders who are first to enter a hazardous scene to healthcare providers treating patients with Ebola. NPPTL continues to provide respiratory protection research to best serve the workers and public that relies on them.

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