Why prisoners in California are being forced to shave their beards because of N95 respirators

The use of N95 respirators has been prioritized for certain types of workers during the coronavirus pandemic. They’re being left primarily to healthcare personnel, but workers in places like prisons in the United States also need this medical-grade protection in some situations where they’re in close contact with COVID-19 positive cases.

While most workers and inmates use other types of face-coverings, like reusable cloth masks, face shields, or KN95 masks, some of them will need N95 respirators, and to use them they’re being required to shave their beards. Today we’ll talk about what has been their response in California.

Prisoners in California are fighting to keep their facial hair

In an unexpected turn of events, the state prison in California is experiencing a fight between prisoners and officials. The reason: prisoners don’t want to shave off their beards to use N95 respirators during their jobs. Officials have been urging workers to shave their facial hair so that N95 mask fittings can comply with safety regulations, as the respirators work best when they fit closely to the wearer’s skin.

The order to prepare for fittings came last Monday at Valley State Prison, some of the fittings were paused due to concerns about facial hair, and the International Union of Operating Engineers had to intervene. The union’s director of public employees, Steve Crouch, told workers to not shave their facial hair just yet as they try to figure things out.

The situation’s been monitored by the union at Folsom State Prison, where an estimate of three dozen maintenance men has facial hair, and have been told to shave. Roger Jacobs, a union steward, says: “I don’t know what’s going on beneath their beards, if they have scars or if it’s self-identity, but a lot of guys are upset, they don’t want to shave their beards. They say ‘just buy us the proper personal protective equipment that lets us keep our beards and be safe.’”

Workers are now calling for the prison to provide them with respirators known as PAPRs, which cost about $1,000 each according to the procurement records from the state. These respirators are called Powered Air Purifying Respirators, and they enclose the worker’s head, filtering the air with units on the worker’s hips. N95 masks, on the other hand, would cost about $2 each or less.

According to the records, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has made purchases for, at least, a couple dozen of the PAPR units. The records, however, don’t disclose what the corrections department uses them for or what prisons they went to. For years, this department has required its employers to do fit tests for respirators that would protect them from respiratory hazards.

On August 31, the department announced that, following COVID-19 protocols, more employees would have to do these fit tests. The new coronavirus disease has now infected 15,620 inmates and 4,317 workers so far inside California state prisons, according to the corrections department. The total of deaths from the virus amounts to 10 workers and 76 inmates.

According to union representative Brandy Jonson, the situation is beyond just facial hair. Johnson says people who don’t attend COVID-19 patients or go into quarantine areas are being ordered for fit tests. She’s saying workers aren’t just concerned for their facial hair, but about the fact that these fit tests could mean they’ll be more exposed to the virus. Many of the workers aren’t in close contact with inmates or other people and are concerned these fit tests means they’ll be more exposed now.

N95 masks and why they don’t work with facial hair

N95 masks, also known as N95 respirators, are tight-fitting disposable face masks that offer more protection than surgical or medical face masks and are much more suitable for virus protection than reusable cloth masks. Their antiviral properties make them the most necessary piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by healthcare workers, first responders, and other types of workers in constant exposure to the virus.

Respirators are mask-like devices that are placed on the wearer’s face, covering the mouth and nose. They have a filter media that traps dangerous particles, including dust or smoke, or even viruses like the flu or the coronavirus. This way, when the wearer inhales, these particles won’t enter their respiratory tracts.

The term ‘N95’ refers to the respirator’s resistance to oil, which is none, and is indicated with the letter ‘N’. The ‘95’ means that the respirator can filter at least 95% of all airborne particles. This is all according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s classification of respirators, which is the standard used in the USA.

For N95 masks to work effectively, they need to be tightly fitted to the wearer’s face. This makes sure no leakage can happen, and that all the air that is being inhaled by the user is being filtered by the respirator. To ensure this tight fit, workplaces in which N95 respirators are needed require their workers to do fit tests with the face masks.

When a person has facial hair, the respirator isn’t fitted tightly to the wearer’s skin, because the hair is between the two. This makes N95 respirators not as effective, and that’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends keeping the face as hair-free as possible in the area where the respirator is placed. They have a useful infographic about this topic explaining everything. 

If you’re looking for N95 respirators for your workers to stay safe, including 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, you can search for legitimate options for sale online. You can also find options to purchase in bulk or wholesale, and a lot of options for kids in a smaller size. Remember to stay safe in public!

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