How to know if your N95 mask is working

Reusable and disposable face masks, like cloth masks, surgical masks, KN95 masks, and N95 masks, are required in different types of work settings. Some work environments call for a very specific type of protection offered by N95 masks, and to make sure they work correctly, a series of tests need to be performed on their employees.

There are many different models and brands of N95 masks. For example, some popular 3M N95 masks are the 3M 8210, the 3M 8511, and the 3M 1860. However, for each model or brand, the fit might vary. So, how do you know if your N95 mask is working? 

N95 masks

N95 masks are also known as N95 respirators. They’re an important part of the personal protective equipment of many work settings, including the healthcare one. As of lately, their use in this setting has gained prominence as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are considered the best face mask for the virus protection of healthcare workers because of the antiviral properties they show.  

A respirator is a device that resembles a mask that is designed to filter out potentially harmful particles that should not be inhaled in large amounts or for prolonged periods, known as respiratory hazards. These can be found in many work settings, which is why respirators are necessary for workers in these environments.

In the United States, the institution in charge of the regulation of respirators is called the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). They are in charge of making recommendations that could help prevent work-related illnesses. To regulate respirators, they created a classification N95 respirators are a part of.

According to NIOSH, N95 masks are those with no oil resistance, which means they can’t filter out oil-based particles, and a filtration efficacy of 95% for airborne particles, which are those with a size of 0.3 micrometers. Such particles include dust, smoke, or pollen particles, as well as bioaerosols that include the flu virus and the new coronavirus.

To be considered a legitimate N95 mask that can be used in work settings that require this type of protection, any respirator manufactured to be marketed as such must be tested by NIOSH and obtain their approval to make sure they perform like an N95 mask.

How do N95 masks work?

As a person inhales, the air goes through the filter material and is filtered to protect the wearer from potentially harmful particles in the environment. When the person exhales, the air is filtered again, this time protecting the people around them from the potential pathogens they could be releasing into the environment.

To make sure all the air that is being both inhaled and exhaled is going through the filter media, leakages can’t happen. This can occur when there are spaces between the wearer’s face and the respirator. This is why N95 respirators and other types of respirators require a very tight fit around the face to form a seal that makes sure no unfiltered air is being inhaled or exhaled.

Fit tests

Respirators are an important part of the protective gear in many workplaces around the USA. For this reason, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires work settings to perform annual fit tests to make sure the respirator fits each employee correctly and forms a tight seal around their face before being used in the workplace. This makes sure each worker is receiving the level of protection they require without any air leakage.

The fit tests are conducted not only to verify the tightness fit, but also the comfort of it. The methods used can be either qualitative or quantitative.

  •         Qualitative fit test: a pass/fail test that is based on the person’s sensory detection of an agent, be it by smell, taste, or involuntary cough.
  •         Quantitative fit test: this uses an instrument to measure the effectiveness of the respirator numerically.

Fit tests must be performed when initially selecting a respirator model. But, they must also be done, as required by OSHA, annually to make sure the fit is still the correct one of that specific respirator model, as well as “whenever an employee reports, or the employer or the physician or other licensed health care professional makes visual observations of changes in the employee’s physical condition that could affect respirator fit.”

Once fit tested, the successful result only qualifies the worker to use the specific model and size of the specific brand they were tested for. The sizes of a respirator are not universal or standardized across all the models and brands. So, this means that each time there’s a change in either the brand or model, a new fit test must be performed, because the size they used in the previous model or brand they were tested for may not be the size that fits them correctly in the new model or brand.

According to OSHA, tight-fitting respirators should not be worn by people with facial hair that can come between the facepiece and the skin on the face. This includes beards, sideburns, and mustaches, and they can interfere with the necessary tight seal the respirator has to make.

For more information about how to use respirators and how fit tests are performed, you can read more through these links.

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2018-129/pdfs/2018-129.pdf?id=10.26616/NIOSHPUB2018129

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/disp_part/respsource.html

We would like to remind our readers that the recommended form of protection against COVID-19 in the general public is the cloth mask, and medical-grade masks should be reserved for frontline workers. Adults and kids above the age of 2 can wear these masks, which are easy to find for sale online and anyone can buy them in bulk or wholesale. 

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