Are our surgical masks suitable for ‘essential workers’?

The pandemic has divided the US working class into two categories—namely, essential workers and the non-essential workers. What does the term’ essential worker’ engage in? Well, this term is quite wide and refers to all the workers of the United States whose services during this pandemic have been indispensable. An essential worker isn’t necessarily a healthcare worker and does not have to be associated with a white-collar job. They are not CEO’s or the traders at Wall Street who make thousands of dollars and even more in a single day.

Instead, this term chiefly refers to those who do odd jobs at grocery stores, farms, and plants, and of course, the people working in hospitals are also included in this category. These people’s jobs do not pay them too well and especially during the pandemic they had to face a lot of hurdles. The essential workers’ nature of the job does not allow them to work remotely and the environments in which they were required to work aren’t the most hygienic. In addition to this, the violation of safety measures and the lack of PPE for the essential workers in another alarming problem that has managed to put the lives of these people at stake.

Essential workers and their unsafe job environments

Healthcare and other essential workers are required to go to their jobs daily and interact with hundreds of people. They work in such environments where being exposed to a carrier of COVID-19 wouldn’t be a big problem. Reportedly, the respective in-charges of the working environment of essential workers aren’t too keen on maintaining social distancing either and aren’t afraid of gathering all their staff in one small space. These neglects have created a high wave of panic among the concerned essential workers who are now protesting on streets against the lack of protection that is caused by the violation of precautionary measures and the lack of PPE.

While the healthcare workers are still suffering from the shortage of PPE, many hospitals across the country that are short on N95s have directed their staff to wear old N95 respirators. This shocking and hazardous decision has left nurses and other workers astonished who are now worried about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. Many nurses had to walk out of their jobs because of the unhygienic environment created by insufficient PPE.

Even individuals working for big conglomerates like Amazon complained about the unsafe working environments and workers at various poultry farms also expressed their distress about the over-crowded working environment. These factors have led to an increase in coronavirus cases across all sectors where the essential workers are present.

Why respirators are crucial for all essential workers

When comparing the two masks—surgical masks and an N95 respirator, indubitably the N95 mask is the superior one of the two. The tried and tested N95 respirator which is also approved by NIOSH provides its user 95% protection against airborne particulates—fumes, droplets and fluids, pollution, and bacteria even. The N95 can filter out particles the up-to-the size of 0.3 microns which also includes the size of coronavirus. It also provides the user with a tight seal which does not allow the particulates to pass through it.

The surgical mask, on the other hand, filters out droplets and fluids only and was created to be used during medical procedures only. It also does not have a tight seal which allows ample space for particulates to sneak into the mask. It is also not approved by any legitimate agency like NIOSH or CDC. According to functionality and efficiency, the N95 is the better mask but the lack of this particular respirator has created such circumstances in which a surgical would also suffice.

Even though respirators are the recommended mask for all healthcare workers but since the current situation has prompted hospitals to reuse N95 masks—a surgical mask, even though not a preferable option over an N95 respirator, will still be a better option than an old N95. A used N95 will have very little efficacy and will almost be the equivalent of not wearing a mask at all. However, using a surgical mask in this situation will be a better choice. But that is if the surgical mask is not old, soggy, and being used long after its expiration date.

The surgical mask should be in the best of conditions and must not be worn for more than 24 hours. It should be discarded after each use to ensure efficiency. It should be remembered that a surgical mask is not the suitable mask for essential worker out there as their jobs require them to interact with many individuals out of whom any single person could be a possible carrier and if they contract the virus they could easily pass it on to the people they interact with daily, I.e.—patients, customers, and even their family members.


Essential workers, at the current moment, are serving as the backbone of this country. They are working in unsanitary conditions to keep the economy of this country up and running. Without being offered any kind of compensation or surplus in regards to the current circumstances, these people are risking their lives every day by showing at work. The healthcare and other essential workers are the most deserving of PPE such as N95 but considering the current shortage of PPE, a surgical mask is better than no mask at all but it should be the second option and the preference should be given to an N95 as the people associated with such professions need it the most.

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