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PODCAST: The ins and outs of the N95 mask

April 7, 2020
By Marcel Vander Wier/OHS Canada

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) is only rising.

Health-care organizations across North America are scrambling for safety gear such as the N95 mask, and companies are responding in a variety of ways to assist.

For its March episode of Safe Zone, OHS Canada editor Marcel Vander Wier was joined by Tony Guarino, a PPE expert with Levitt-Safety in Oakville, Ont. (OHS Canada is a sister publication to Talent Canada that covers the world of occupational health and safety.)


A transcription of the Q&A session is below.

Tony Guarino is a PPE expert with Levitt-Safety. (Submitted)

OHS Canada: Can you tell me what exactly an N95 mask is, and why they are in such high demand right now?

Tony Guarino: Yeah. So what people commonly refer to as an N95 is a disposable respirator that’s NIOSH-approved and has a filter capability of N95. What that indicates — the N95 — is that it’s designed to filter out non-oil-based particles and is 95 per cent efficient. So, it’s a disposable, tight-fitting respirator, also referred to as a filtering facepiece.

They’re commonly used in health care because — for infectious disease for filtering out things like tuberculosis or other small infectious disease, and being disposable — they work well for these infectious control reasons because they can just be disposed of after their used and they don’t have to worry about cleaning it or decontaminating it.

Right now, with the COVID-19 outbreak, these are being used in health care for various procedures and for protecting the health-care workers against this infectious disease. And we’re seeing sort of an unprecedented demand for these masks. This type of outbreak has gone on for a number of months now, and also it’s a situation where it’s a global outbreak. It’s not just affecting one particular region, so we have multiple regions looking for the same piece of equipment — all at the same time. And so that’s what’s really adding to the demand right now.

Why are N95s so popular, as opposed to other masks?

TG: In health care, N95s are really used because they’re disposable. So, they work very well for their purposes for going into an isolation room, for example. When they leave that isolation room or before they see the next patient, they take that mask off, throw it away, and then they can take a new one. Other types of masks would be something like a reusable respirator, and with that they would require cleaning or decontaminating when they went from one patient to the next.

Are there alternatives to N95 masks and what are they?

TG: So, this has come up quite a bit recently. Due to the large demand of N95 masks, it’s really caused shortages. So we’ve had to look to other disposable respirators that are comparable to N95s that maybe meet other approval agencies from around the world — for example, KN95. What a KN95 is, basically it’s another disposable respirator, similar to an N95, but it meets another approval agency (as) opposed to NIOSH. At times like this, we may need to look at these types of products, review the data and see that they are comparable and can be used to offer the same level of protection as an N95 for those particular hazards.

Can you use expired masks or reuse personal, non-expired ones?

TG: Yeah, so this question — we’ve been getting this lately quite a bit… a lot of health-care facilities, as part of their plan to prepare for an outbreak or pandemic, they stockpiled large amounts of disposable respirators. But over the years, these products expired.

What you need to understand is sort of the manufacturer puts expiry dates on these products because they have components made out of rubber and foam. And over time, those components can deteriorate or potentially break. And if this is the case, it may not offer the same level of protection as it was intended for. Also, the filter material in some brands is electrostatically charged and over the years, the mass will lose that electrostatic charge. So, we really need to go to the manufacturer on their recommendations if it can be used and that equipment needs to be inspected prior to use, just to ensure that it hasn’t deteriorated at all and that it will still offer the same level of protection.

N95 masks are currently in high demand as the world grapples with COVID-19. (Adobe Stock)

Many companies have donated their supply of masks to health-care facilities. Why is the need so important in hospitals for these masks, as opposed to within the general public?

TG: Yeah. So, right now, as I mentioned before, this huge unprecedented demand — I think it’s very important that we prioritize where these masks go. And the manufacturers right now are doing that, and distributors. They are really trying to keep the flow going to medical workers in health care and also emergency front-line staff. And so we are seeing that some private companies and organizations are donating their N95s that they have to these health-care facilities for them to use.

There’s been some debate around usage by the general public. Is there anything you can say on that front — the need for safety professional usage versus the general public?

TG: Currently, with the current outbreak with COVID-19, Health Canada is not recommending that the general public use masks for protection. They do recommend maintaining that social distancing of six feet or two metres. One of the problems with using masks for the general public is you really need to have procedures in place, as far as changeout goes. They do need to be frequently changed out. And there’s always the risk that when you’re putting that mask on, you may touch your face, which could be an issue… you touch your mouth or touch your face, and that’s a way that it can enter your body.

And if you’re reusing a mask, for example, there’s the hazard of you taking the mask off, now putting it onto something, transferring those contaminants there and then also handling it again to then put it back on properly. So that’s just one of the issues with wearing masks. You do need to have those sort of procedures in place with properly taking it off and on.

The second part of your question, was it towards front-line employees? There may be scenarios where there’s other workplaces where you have workers working in close proximity, where they possibly can’t maintain that social distancing, or they’re working in front of the general public. These may be times where you might want to consider using a mask for protection. Not so much an N95 respirator, but just a surgical mask should suffice.

For companies who may find themselves in a shortage of this type of PPE, is there any recommendations you could about finding that supply?

TG: Currently, right now, we may need to look — as I was mentioning before — to alternate vendors in different locations. Certain companies like Levitt-Safety are sourcing product that may meet other approval agencies from around the world, like we were talking about earlier the KN95. So, this may be a time where we’ll need to look at other types of product to provide protection in these times, if we’re having issues being able to source our preferred gear.

What can OHS professionals and the general public do to assist in the current pandemic when it comes to N95 masks and other PPE?

TG: With the current pandemic — it’s definitely so, so important — I’ve got to mention is just maintaining that social distancing; best practices with hand hygiene; continually washing your hands. When it comes to your equipment and your PPE, always maintain proper cleaning procedures of that — especially with any equipment that might be shared with multiple employees. You really want to ensure everything is properly cleaned and sanitized in-between use. And also, this might be a time where If you don’t require the use of your disposable N95 respirators, this may be a time that you leave that supply — if you do have the ability to get some — for the emergency workers and health-care network.

Is there anything more that you want you might want to share about the N95 that might be relevant to health and safety professionals?

TG: Yeah. One thing that I didn’t touch on is fit testing of the N95 mask in training to ensure that they’re worn properly is very important to ensure that they provide the proper level of protection. In health-care facilities, in hospitals, they do some pretty robust training and fit testing to ensure that for these masks to work, they need to be on properly and you need to have the right size. So, doing proper fit testing and training is very important to ensure that they provide the proper level of protection.

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