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Qualitative vs. Quantitative Respirator Test Systems

By Tim Jones April 26, 2019

If you're employed in an industry commonly affected by airborne pollution and hazards, such as construction, manufacturing or nursing, you probably know about on-site respirator fit testing. The importance of these fit testing services can’t be understated, as these tests will determine if a tight-fitting respirator can be safely worn by a person without leading to dangerous leaks.

Regardless of whether a qualitative or quantitative respirator fit test is being done, it's essential that the person wears any protection they would wear along with the respirator. Generally speaking, there are two main categories of respirators: loose-fitting and tight-fitting. As tight-fitting respirators can only protect people when they fit properly, these types are held to stricter standards. According to regulations for OSHA mask fit testing, it's required for tight-fitting respirators, while those that don't need a tight seal around a person's face aren’t required to undergo testing before use. If you're wondering which type of test your employees will need, this comparison will help you. Read on to learn the similarities and differences between these two options for mask fit testing.

Women with Respirator



A qualitative respiration fit test is essentially a pass/fail test based on the senses. By monitoring taste, smell, and reaction to irritant as a way of detecting leaks, qualitative testing can be successful. This form of testing doesn’t measure how much air is leaking into the face piece, but it does detect leakage of test substance. Mainly used for half-mask respirators such as N95 face masks, OSHA accepts four methods of qualitative testing using four test agents:

  1. Isoamyl acetate: Evaluates the test subject’s response to the odor of isoamyl acetate, which smells similar to banana. If a person can smell the odor while wearing the mask, the test has failed.
  2. Saccharin solution: Evaluates the test subject’s response to the sweet taste of saccharin. If they can taste it, the mask doesn’t fit correctly and has failed.
  3. Bitrex: The test determines if, when wearing the mask, the subject can detect the bitter taste of Bitrex. If he or she can, the fit isn’t correct, and the test has failed.
  4. Irritant smoke: If the person being tested can detect the irritant smoke that is produced, the test has failed.


The three methods of quantitative fit testing accepted by OSHA are ambient aerosol, generated aerosol, and controlled negative pressure. When you undergo this type of on-site respirator fit testing, a machine is used to measure the precise amount of leaking air. There will be no taste or smell test used in detecting the leak, and this method can be applied to any tight-fitting respirator. However, quantitative testing is most commonly used for full-face respirators. 

Man with Full-Face Mask

When to Test

Regardless of which type of test you go with, it's important to understand that respirator fit tests must be completed before an employer wears a mask for the first time at work. These fit tests need to be completed annually, and they also must happen if there are changes to a person's face that could affect the fit of the respirator. These changes may include dental work, facial scarring, face surgery, or weight loss or gain. In order to keep track of these respirator fit tests and remain well within OSHA compliance while keeping your workers healthy and safe, you should visit the OSHA website for great resources. The more you know, and the more you stay up to date with all of this, the better off your team will be in the long run.

If you're ready to test your face masks with an expert and experienced team, get in touch with Professional Fit Testing Services today!

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