The Importance Of Respiratory Protection In Pathogen Research

CDC microbiologist in a pathogen lab wearing specialised respiratory protective equipment while carefully analysing a reconstructed virus contained in a calibrated vial.


Pathogen research, by nature, requires scientists to handle potentially infectious or even deadly bacteria or viruses which, if not carefully controlled, could lead to serious and lasting consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic, irrespective of its origins, is a testament to how a virus can quickly and comprehensively spread among populations, claiming lives, instilling fear, and causing major upheavals in society and economies.

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At a basic level, scientists involved in pathogen research need to be protected from accidental transmission. Various safeguards should be in place, including Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) which is an effective shield against invisible, airborne threats.

In this article, we’ll consider the importance of RPE in pathogen research and the potential consequences of not wearing RPE in laboratories.

Containment Of Airborne Pathogens

Many pathogens can become airborne if not carefully controlled which poses a significant risk to researchers. Respiratory Protective Equipment is designed to capture microscopic particles, preventing them from entering the scientists’ respiratory system. Effective containment is critical, not only for the health of the researchers but also for the accuracy of experiments. Without RPE, the risk of inhaling or spreading airborne pathogens is high, which could jeopardise both health and research integrity.

Maintaining Biosafety Levels

Pathogen research is categorised into different Biosafety Levels (BSL), ranging from BSL-1 to BSL-4, based on the pathogens' risk levels. Higher levels, especially BSL-3 and BSL-4, often mandate the use of specialist RPE, such as Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) or even full-body suits with integrated respirators. This equipment is essential for handling highly infectious or unknown pathogens, providing an essential barrier between the researcher and the hazardous environment.

Protection During High-Risk Procedures

Certain laboratory procedures, such as centrifugation or generating aerosols, significantly increase the risk of the release of airborne pathogens. During these high-risk activities, the role of RPE is even more important as it ensures researchers are protected from accidental exposure to harmful pathogens, thereby maintaining a safe working environment.

Prevention Of Cross-Contamination

As well as protecting the individual user, Respiratory Protective Equipment prevents the researcher from becoming a vector for pathogen spread. This is crucial to maintain the integrity of scientific research and suppress concerns about the safety of laboratory procedures. By containing pathogens within the research environment, RPE ensures that these potentially deadly microorganisms do not contaminate other areas or studies, which could lead to skewed results or broader contamination. There is an important consideration here, is the aim to protect the researcher from the pathogen, or is the aim to protect the pathogen (or the experiment) from the researcher? Understanding this is critical in selecting the correct design criteria for respiratory protection equipment.

Emergency Preparedness

Accidents, such as spills, leaks, or other emergencies, are an unpredictable and potentially dangerous aspect of pathogen research, even if robust preventive measures are taken. RPE is an immediate line of defence in such situations, protecting researchers from inhaling potentially harmful pathogens. Because an accident could occur at any time, being prepared is crucial to minimise the impact of exposure to harmful pathogens, and wearing RPE is an essential part of preparedness.

Compliance With Safety Standards

Finally, regulatory bodies, for example, Public Health England and the World Health Organisation (WHO), set strict guidelines for safe working with pathogens. Adhering to these guidelines, including the use of appropriate RPE, is a requirement for laboratory compliance. The consequences of not wearing appropriate RPE in a laboratory can be severe, for example, the withdrawal of an operating licence.

Protect Your Laboratory Team Against Respiratory Risks

To enhance your researchers’ protection against harmful pathogens and protect the safety of the wider community, please get in touch with Fire Safe International to find out more about our RPE for laboratories.

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