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COVID-19 + Respiratory Protection

April 8, 2020

COVID-19 + Respiratory Protection
Respirators, also referred to facemasks and N95s, have become a part of daily life for many of us as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC advises that most people do not need to wear a facemask/respirator, these masks are in short supply and should be saved for healthcare personnel (cdc.gov). However, people in essential jobs that have contact with the public need to follow CDC recommended precautions which may include respiratory protection.

For staff new to using respirators, understanding the proper use and limitations of different types of protective equipment like surgical masks, N95 filtering facepiece respirators, or cartridge type reusable respirators is important to providing protection.

For supervisors and managers dealing with a new or expanded respiratory protection program there can be a lot of questions about Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements including medical evaluations, fit testing, training and a written program.

What is a N95 Respirator?
A N95 filtering facepiece respirator is basically a dust mask. To be rated “N95” means that the mask meets certain National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) requirements for design and filter efficiency and has a 95% efficiency for small (0.3 micron) aerosols used for NIOSH certification. The term “respirator” is used to differentiate it from dust masks that do not meet NIOSH requirements. There are other types of filtering facepieces, or dust mask style respirators, as well as rubber or silicone cartridge style respirators that can be used with dust filters.

How is a N95 Different than a Surgical Mask?
A respirator is designed to filter out contaminants and protect the user. How much it protects will depend on the type of respirator, the filter media, the fit and seal. Facial hair is one factor that effects the seal to the face reducing the effectiveness of the respirator.

The benefit of a surgical mask, including CDC recommended homemade masks, is primarily to contain aerosols (i.e. saliva) from a cough, sneeze, etc. by the user. It does not have a seal around the face but does provide some protection to the user from inhaling dust or airborne aerosols from other people’s exhalation or coughs.

What are OSHA Requirements?
OSHA has several requirements for respirator use including a program administrator, written program, medical surveillance, fit testing and training. The OSHA standard is lengthy and broad as it is intended to cover any type of respirator use from an N95 to chemical cartridges respirators for hazardous chemicals to SCBA for firefighters. If you are only using N95 respirators your program can be streamlined to the specific issues related to N95 use.

T&M Associates health and safety professionals are available to assist you and your staff with respiratory protection and other health and safety issues to keep you safe during this crisis. Please let us know if you have any questions.