Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's been one item that has caused controversy and tension: The N95 respirator. A lot of people were looking to obtain this item that protects us from getting infected, and experts were worried that frontline workers would suffer from shortages of this important and necessary item. But health care workers aren't the only ones who need this personal protection equipment (PPE), so let's learn what other jobs use this type of disposable mask.
First, let's explain a little bit about what an N95 mask is. To be an N95 respirator, it must meet some criteria established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In short, N95 masks are not resistant to oil (meaning they protect against non-oil-based particles, like viruses) and have a minimum filtration efficacy of 95% of airborne particles.
To be used as medical, surgical, or dental equipment, N95 must have an FDA authorization in addition to the NIOSH approval. But, amid the pandemic, the FDA authorized selected NIOSH-approved N95 masks to be used by health care workers.
The healthcare industry
This is a no brainer. Logically, health care workers are making the most use out of N95 masks, especially during the pandemic. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other types of health care workers are confronted face to face with the coronavirus, and are the priority when it comes to work safety against the virus.
N95 respirators ensure a tight fit for the face than regular face masks because they have headbands instead of loops. They also protect health care workers against at least 95% of all airborne particles in the air (particles that have a diameter of 0.3 micrometers).
The supplies for N95 respirators during the pandemic have been a point of tension inside hospitals in the United States, and at the start of the emergency, there were reports of rationing at some places. This makes sense, as N95 respirators are crucial for frontline workers to protect themselves and the patients.
The New York Times reported that 3.5 billion N95 masks would be needed per year to face the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released early on a list of strategies aiming to optimize the supply of N95 masks during this emergency. Some of the strategies are the reduction of risk exposure for health care workers by isolating patients and using digital methods to reduce as much as possible face to face contact with patients.
The CDC has also issued some recommendations for when the N95 respirators are running low or even situations where there are none left. For example, they recommend using the respirators beyond the designated shelf life, using disposable face masks approved under foreign standards, and reusing the N95 respirators. They also recommend keeping away from the frontline all the health care workers who are at high risk, for example, those who are older or have comorbidities.
The concern about the access to N95 masks has been an ongoing debate since the start of the pandemic. Back in April, the president invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950, which had already been used several times before during other types of emergencies. The DPA authorizes the government to direct private companies to prioritize the national supply of necessary goods. The measures include the prioritization of national contracts and national production.
In the situation of the pandemic, the DPA applies to companies that sell medical personal protection equipment, like 3M. But some experts have stated that this measure may have been taken too late, and that it won't be enough to prevent N95 masks shortages.
Amid the craziness of the pandemic, it's easy to forget that N95 respirators were used by other types of workers other than the ones on the health care industry. N95 respirators were mainly used by them before the COVID-emergency, and health care workers used mostly medical or surgical masks. NIOSH approved N95 masks needed to have also an FDA approval to be used as medical equipment.
Other jobs that make regular use of these types of respirators include mining, painting, and construction. These are job environments with many different respiratory health hazards, where occupational safety must focus on avoiding the inhalation of airborne particles that, in the long run, can cause very serious health issues.
At the beginning of the crisis, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) urged employers who were exposed to these types of respiratory hazards to consider other types of protection that weren't N95 masks to ensure frontline workers had a sufficient supply. Plus, the released a series of recommendations to help prevent the N95 mask shortage that was predicted to happen. Some of these recommendations included "extend the use or reuse the respirator, as long as the respirator maintains its structural and functional integrity and the filter material is not physically damaged, soiled, or contaminated”.
As always, we would like to invite you to keep taking safety measures to ensure you, your family, and your kids stay safe. We recommend having your N95 mask, and you can find them easily on an online store to keep with social distancing. You'll find them at a good price, and you'll ensure you won't be putting yourself or others at risk.