On Safety

On Safety: COVID-19 and respiratory protection

Photo: Memorystockphoto/iStockphoto

Despite the recent withdrawal of OSHA’s emergency temporary standard on COVID-19 vaccination, testing and masking and the partial withdrawal of the agency’s ETS on COVID-19 for health care workers, a lot of questions remain regarding mask and respirator use.

Stakeholders are asking what OSHA is expecting if someone is using a mask in their facility that is covered under the standard on respiratory protection (1910.134). The agency is working on its COVID-19 FAQs document to address this issue. However, the time frame for the guidance to be finalized and posted is unknown. This blog post will hopefully provide some opinion and guidance until OSHA issues its updates.

The questions NSC-ORC HSE most commonly receive include:

  • Will OSHA accept a KN95 mask?
  • Is a KN95 mask covered by 1910.134?

But, first, a little background: On its website, the Mayo Clinic answers the question: “How well do facemasks protect against COVID-19?” The clinic states:

“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says that you should wear the most protective mask possible that you’ll wear regularly and that fits. Respirators such as nonsurgical N95s give the most protection. KN95s and medical masks provide the next highest level of protection. Cloth masks provide less protection.” (CDC has previously stated that surgical N95 masks should be reserved for health care providers. Since that early statement, quantities of N95 respirators have become readily available for purchase without impacting health care supply chains.)

“A KN95 mask is a type of respirator that meets certain international standards. It offers more protection than a medical mask does because it filters out both large and small particles when the wearer inhales.” (They typically are secured to the user by a set of ear loops. However, be cautious when buying a KN95, as many fake masks are sold that don’t meet quality requirements.)

“An N95 mask is a type of respirator that meets U.S. quality standards. An N95 offers the highest level of protection. It offers more protection than a medical mask does because it filters out both large and small particles when the wearer inhales. Nonsurgical N95s can be used by the general public.”

As a separate note, the “N” in N95 means “not resistant to oil.” If you work in an environment where an oil mist is present, such as a machine shop, an N95 wouldn’t be an appropriate respirator to use. Instead, a P95 mask, which is strongly resistant to oil, should be used.

Regarding the counterfeit mask issue, if you’re using an N95, reference the testing and certification (TC) number on the respirator with the NIOSH-Approved Particulate Filtering Facepiece Respirators webpage. If you have a product that isn’t listed on the provided tables, use the agency’s searchable certified equipment list.

During the early months of the pandemic, N95 respirators were in short supply. This resulted in a lot of K and KN95 masks reaching the marketplace, many of which may be counterfeit. Employers trying to comply with mask mandates and protect their workers who purchased these masks and are now wondering if they’re considered OSHA-compliant. Regarding K and KN95, CDC says:

  • They’re designed to standards that don’t often have a quality requirement.
  • They filter varying levels of particles in the air depending on the standard they’re designed to meet.
  • They seal tightly to your face when fitted properly.
  • It’s important to pick a respirator that fits your face and seals well, because not all fit the same.

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