Breathe Easy: Pulmonary Function Testing

Every day, CTEH’s nurses help promote workplace health and safety with precise and thorough medical surveillance programs. Consider pulmonary function tests (PFTs) as an example. With our expert services, our partners can breathe easy knowing their employees are safe on the job. Kim Alvis, CTEH’s in-house certified occupational and environmental health nurse, shares more about PFTs below:

First, can you explain what pulmonary function testing is?
CTEH occupational and environmental health nurses perform a component of the pulmonary function test known as spirometry. A spirometry test measures an individual’s lung function, specifically the amount and speed of air that can be inhaled and exhaled. It’s an important tool in assessing the ability of a worker to wear a respirator. It helps determine how much air he or she can BLAST out in the first second of the blow. This is measured against a standard.

Spirometry tests must meet the acceptability and repeatability criteria of the American Thoracic Society. Technicians should have a valid certificate from a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved course. CTEH nurses are NIOSH trained.

How do you prepare for spirometry testing?
Spirometry testing requires proper preparation. CTEH nurses may ask a worker questions such as “Have you smoked within the last hour?” or “Have you just consumed a heavy meal?” They may also evaluate whether the worker has on tight clothing (e.g., necktie, belt) that would restrict him or her from performing the test properly; has dentures or oral pain; is ill with a cold or congestion; is able to stand; obese; or has asthma or some other lung disease. These questions help the nurse determine the worker’s ability to perform the test, the needed test position, or if the test should be postponed.

Coaching and encouraging the worker during testing is essential. CTEH nurses are trained to provide feedback on the quality of the test to help improve the outcome. For example, the word BLAST is used to help the worker know when he or she should forcefully blow.

What types of professions or fields require these types of tests?
OSHA regulations require spirometry testing as part of employers’ medical surveillance programs. The following workers should have testing:

- Those who are required to wear respirators or are exposed to breathing hazards such as asbestos, cadmium, coke oven emissions, or cotton dust
- Participants of a respiratory health surveillance program
- Those who are exposed to levels of formaldehyde and benzene that must wear a respirator

Workers who are not required to have spirometry testing under OSHA guidelines should still be tested at least every other year to evaluate changes in lung function over time. 

Why are these types of tests so important to overall workplace safety and health?
Spirometry testing helps evaluate how well workers can move air in and out of their lungs. It establishes a baseline before assigning the worker job tasks that require the use of a respirator. It also helps track lung function over time to better evaluate potential signs or symptoms of respiratory disease.  

Does your workplace need help conducting PFTs? CTEH’s nurses are NIOSH trained to perform spirometry testing and have extensive experience developing and implementing OSHA-approved programs. Contact us at 501-801-8500.