Federal agencies Respiratory protection Health Care Workers

OSHA issues two enforcement memos to help combat N95 shortage

N95 respirator

Photo: ninuns/iStockphoto

Washington — In response to a nationwide shortage of N95 filtering facepiece respirators during the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA has announced further temporary easing of regulations related to respiratory protection.

The agency on April 3 issued two interim enforcement guidance memos in regard to the Respiratory Protection Standard (1910.134) and certain other health standards. According to one of the memos, OSHA is allowing for the reuse of N95 respirators and the use of expired N95s in certain cases.

The agency states in the other memo that it is allowing for the use of filtering facepiece respirators and air-purifying elastomeric respirators certified by other countries or jurisdictions, under the following performance standards:

  • Australia: AS/NZS 1716:2012
  • Brazil: ABNT/NBR 13694:1996, ABNT/NBR 13697:1996 and ABNT/NBR 13698:2011
  • People’s Republic of China: GB 2626-2006 and GB 2626-2019
  • European Union: EN 140-1999, EN 143-2000 and EN 149-2001
  • Japan: JMHLW-2000
  • Republic of Korea: KMOEL-2014-46 and KMOEL-2017-64
  • Mexico: NOM-116-2009

Also allowed is the use of expired filtering facepiece respirators or air-purifying elastomeric respirators that were previously certified under the standards of other countries or jurisdictions. The enforcement guidance applies to all industries, especially workplaces where respiratory protection is impacted by the shortage and health care personnel are exposed to suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients.

OSHA is asking employers to reassess engineering controls, work practices and administrative controls to decrease their need for N95 respirators.

“Employers should, for example, consider whether it is possible to increase the use of wet methods or portable local exhaust systems or to move operations outdoors,” both memos state. “In some instances, an employer may also consider taking steps to temporarily suspend certain nonessential operations.”

If respirators are needed, OSHA is recommending the use of other filtering facepieces, such as N99 or N100 models, reusable elastomeric respirators, or powered air-purifying respirators. Any N95 alternatives should be NIOSH-approved.

If these alternatives are unavailable or their use would create other hazards, employers may consider the extended use or reuse of N95 respirators “as long as the respirator maintains its structural and functional integrity and the filter material is not physically damaged, soiled or contaminated (e.g., with blood, oil, paint).”

Extended use is preferable to reuse because of the risk of virus transmission while donning/doffing respirators. Employers should pay close attention to proper storage of respirators if workers are reusing them.

Workers should perform seal checks each time they wear a respirator and should not use that particular respirator if a seal check cannot be performed successfully. Employers should train workers on when to discard a respirator should the structural or functional integrity become compromised, as well as how to put on/take off a respirator.

Expired N95s should be used only if no new ones are available and an employer has shown “a good-faith effort to acquire the respirators or to use alternative options.” Employers may only use NIOSH-certified expired N95s, and employees must know that they’re using expired respirators. Employers and employees also should not mix expired and non-expired respirators, and should visually inspect respirators to ensure their integrity. Employers are advised to seek advice from manufacturers or independent labs on the testing of any expired respirator in their organizational stockpile prior to use.


For health care providers, expired N95s must not be used during surgery on patients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, or during procedures “expected” to generate aerosols or where respiratory secretions will likely be poorly controlled, such as intubations.

On March 14, OSHA issued a temporary enforcement memo that suspended the required annual respirator fit testing for N95 respirators in the health care industry.

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