In Part 1 the first of this 3-part series, we explained the purpose of face coverings and their role within the overall system to minimize occupational risks within your business, as related to the novel coronavirus. This post will review the features, advantages and disadvantages of each category of face coverings.
Types of Face Coverings
To keep it simple, we will focus on the types of face coverings relevant to #COVID. This includes: surgical masks, cloth (non-surgical) masks, N95 respirators and face shields. Besides the different types of face coverings, they vary in physical properties and quality. ASTM International sets standards for products and services, including face masks and other PPE. There are three levels of protection for face masks from lowest to highest level of protection. If you’re interested to learn more about the ASTM International Standards click here.
Surgical face masks are made of 3-plys non-woven materials and are disposable, single-use. They were designed for healthcare professionals to protect patients by catching any germs shed from the wearer’s mouth and nose. This blocking of respiratory particles is known as source control. Surgical masks are effective at source control, but are not designed to filter out very small particulates like bacteria, viruses, or from other aerosolized particles like dust. They are constructed of a fluid resistant outer layer, absorbent inner layer and a filter layer in between the inner and out layers. Additionally, they have features to improve wearer fit and minimize fogging if the users wear eyewear – an important feature when performing tasks. Disposable surgical masks are relatively low cost and best suited for low and medium exposure risk environments.
Cloth Face Masks
Cloth, or non-surgical, face masks are made from readily available materials, like cotton. They are used as a type of source control to catch the germs expelled by the wearer for the purpose of protecting others from possible infection. Non-medical masks typically have a loose fit and frequently cause fogging of eyewear and may lack fluid resistance. Even though cloth masks can be reused, they should be washed daily to reduce the potential of contaminating other objects and surfaces. For those reasons, cloth face masks are typically less effective than surgical masks, and not considered personal protective equipment (PPE) by public health agencies. While cloth masks have a role in public, businesses need to consider the liability risk regarding their use by employees in the workplace.
N95 respirators (sometimes referred to as N95 masks) are designed to filter out 95% of airborne particles and are part of a respiratory protection program. N95’s are most commonly used in healthcare, construction and other industries to minimize occupational exposure for workers. These tight fitting masks come in sizes and require “fit testing” in order to achieve a good seal to protect the wearer from inhaling contaminated particles. OSHA requires a qualitative and quantitative fit testing to be conducted annually and are administered by health and safety professionals. The process ensures that the wearer is protected in high and very-high risk occupational exposure categories.
Some N95 respirators have exhalation valves. While this variant is designed to filter out harmful particles in the workplace by the wearer, they do not filter germs exhaled by a potentially infected user. Therefore, N95’s with exhalation valves are not intended to be used as a source control and should not be used when interacting with coworkers, visitors, or the general public.
In our next post, and final post of this blog series, we will discuss face shields, describe how to properly use face coverings to minimize occupational exposure, as well as provide a summary to assist readers when making an informed decision for your next purchase.
Until next time…
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