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OSHA Issues FAQ on N95 Masks

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

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Last week, U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a set of Frequently Asked Questions on how N95 respirators effectively protect wearers from coronavirus exposure.

The FAQ arrives as the Administration became aware of incorrect claims stating that N95 respirators filter do not capture particles as small as the virus causing COVID-19.

COVID-19 Guidance

In wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, initial measures in combatting the spread included the wearing of protective respiratory masks and social distancing, among others. However, in taking these steps to fight the coronavirus, the nation witnessed a shortage in the protective gear, hand sanitizer, cleaning products and even toilet paper.

AnanR2107 / Getty Images

Last week, U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a set of Frequently Asked Questions on how N95 respirators effectively protect wearers from coronavirus exposure.

So much so, that in March, the Trump administration made a call requesting that U.S. construction companies donate their safety mask inventory to hospitals and health care facilities experiencing said shortages.

Additionally, at the time, legislation was also being passed around in Congress which included N95 liability protections for companies that manufacture and sell masks, as the masks are reported to be just as acceptable for healthcare workers in avoiding the inhalation of a respiratory disease. The single-use N95 masks are designed to filter 95% of airborne particles. In heading the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Vice President Mike Pence also visited N95 mask manufacturer, 3M, in Minnesota, to discuss increased production.

However, Pence and Surgeon General Jerome Adams added that while the masks were requested for various medical facilities, the average American didn’t need to buy a mask and should revert from purchasing so that they could become available to medical professionals. (Noted, this was at a time where Americans were also asked to stay home, and revert from visiting public places, family members or friends.)

The following month, OSHA released interim enforcement guidance to help combat the shortage of N95 filtering face piece respirators, an action following President Donald J. Trump’s memorandum on Making General Use Respirators Available regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to OSHA, if respiratory protection must be used, employers are to consider use of alternative classes of respirators that provide equal or greater protection compared to an N95 FFR, such as National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved, non-disposable, elastomeric respirators or powered, air-purifying respirators.

In May, OSHA issued further interim enforcement guidance on the reusing of disposable N95 filtering face piece respirators (FFRs). This guidance focuses more on how to decontaminate the FFRs.

In that guidance, it cited NIOSH, which identified available research that suggests the following methods for decontaminating FFRs:

  • Vaporous hydrogen peroxide;
  • Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation;
  • Moist heat (i.e., using an oven); or
  • Microwave-generated steam or liquid hydrogen peroxide.

OSHA also listed methods that are not considered acceptable at this time:

  • Autoclaving;
  • Dry heat;
  • Isopropyl alcohol;
  • Soap;
  • Dry microwave irradiation;
  • Chlorine bleach;
  • Disinfectant wipes; or
  • Ethylene oxide.

“Employers should investigate the effectiveness of any particular decontamination method used for the specific filtering facepiece respirator model to be decontaminated,” OSHA noted.

“Employers should be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of any decontamination method used against the likely contaminant(s) (i.e., pathogens) of concern, and that the decontamination method used does not produce additional safety hazards.”

While COVID-19 cases witnessed a variety of spikes and declines, at the end of August, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health—part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—released guidance on counterfeit respirators.

“NIOSH-approved respirators have an approval label on or within the packaging of the respirator (i.e. on the box itself and/or within the users’ instructions),” NIOSH said. “Additionally, an abbreviated approval is on the FFR itself. You can verify the approval number on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List or the NIOSH Trusted-Source page to determine if the respirator has been approved by NIOSH. NIOSH-approved FFRs will always have one the following designations: N95, N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99, P100.”

Signs that a respirator could be counterfeit include:

  • No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator;
  • No approval (TC) number on filtering facepiece respirator or headband;
  • No NIOSH markings;
  • NIOSH spelled incorrectly;
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons;
  • Claims for the of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children); and
  • Filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands.

Several examples are listed here and NIOSH says that as it becomes aware of more counterfeit respirators or items misrepresenting NIOSH approval, it will post the information there as well.

By September, reports indicated that raw material needed to make N95 masks were still in short supply, forcing a bottleneck on production.

N95 Respirator FAQ

In response to incorrect claims regarding the effective protection of N95 respirators, OSHA has issued a FAQ explaining how an N95 respirator successfully protects wearers against coronavirus exposure.

Within OSHA’s COVID-19 FAQs page, the Administration asks, “Will an N95 respirator protect the wearer from the virus that causes COVID-19?”

The answer: “Yes, an N95 respirator is effective in protecting workers from the virus that causes COVID-19. ‘N95’ refers to a class of respirator filter that removes at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles from the air. Some people have mistakenly claimed that since the virus that causes COVID-19 is approximately 0.1 microns in size, wearing an N95 respirator will not protect against such a small virus. That mistaken claim appears to result from a misunderstanding of how respirators work.

“When an infected person expels the virus into the air by activities like talking, coughing, or sneezing, the airborne particles are composed of more than just the virus. The virus is part of larger particles that are made up of water and other materials such as mucus. These larger particles are easily trapped and filtered out by N95 respirators because they are too big to pass through the filter. This is called mechanical filtration. But mechanical filtration is just one of the ways that respirator filters keep particles from passing through the filter. An electrostatic charge also attracts particles to fibers in the filter, where the particles become stuck. In addition, the smallest particles constantly move around (called "Brownian motion"), and are very likely to hit a filter fiber and stick to it.”

The administration goes on to note that NIOSH tests respirators using particles that simulate a 0.3 micron diameter because this size particle is most likely to pass through the filter, and if worn correctly, will successfully protect against at least 95% of particles. It is for this reason that the Administration stresses the correct use of N95 respirators.

Visit OSHA’s COVID-19 webpage for further information and resources about the coronavirus.

View all of PaintSquare Daily News coverage on COVID-19, here.


Tagged categories: COVID-19; Government; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; Respirators; Respiratory Protection Standard; Safety

Comment from T W, (10/27/2020, 9:16 AM)

Now let's see one on cloth, gators and bandanas please.

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (10/27/2020, 11:35 AM)

T. W. there actually have been some, such as the one done at Duke about particle transmission ( The cloth face coverings, gaiters and bandanas do not provide much, if any, protection for the wearer (which some people think they are for); however, they do reduce the expulsion of airborne droplets from the wearer, which reduces the transmission of the virus to others, especially in asymptomatic cases. An N95, without an exhalation port and when properly fitted and fit checked, provides protection to the wearer and prevents transmission of's why they are the "gold standard," requested to be reserved for medical professional use and are currently in such short supply.

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