The correct use of masks and the need for face-fit testing is often an overlooked aspect of RPE

With the current Covid-19 outbreak there has been an increased focus on the use of face masks and confusion around whether a mask is needed to be worn.  

Current World Health Organisation advice is you do not need to wear a mask if you are healthy, that you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected infection or if you are coughing or sneezing.

When do I need to wear a mask in the workplace and how do I make sure I’m wearing it correctly? 

In the workplace employees should be protected from breathing in harmful substances such as dust particulates, mist, vapour, gases or fume that may be generated as a result of certain work activities. Respiratory protective equipment (RPE), is designed to protect the wearer from breathing in harmful substances and can also be used to protect the wearer when in an oxygen deficient atmosphere when other controls are not sufficient on their own. 

The use of RPE should be considered after you have taken all other reasonably practicable measures to prevent or control exposure. RPE is the last line of protection and can only protect the wearer if it is used correctly. 

With such a wide array of RPE available, such as disposable, half face or full face masks, the different filter types and the different scenarios in which RPE may be used, a large proportion of business owners remain unsure as to which masks should be used by employees, maintenance workers and contractors. Many business owners are unaware of the need to ensure masks fit correctly and overlook the need to carry out face fit testing with individual users and train the individual on how to use their mask correctly.

RPE needs to be fit for purpose, protecting against the right hazard, to reduce exposure to the wearer but it must also be suitable for the task and environment in which it will be worn. 

For low-risk environments, where the task is less hazardous, shorter in duration and undertaken on a less frequent basis, a disposable mask may be suitable. However, if the RPE is one of the control measures, to reduce the risk of exposure, it must fit correctly and a fit test undertaken. 

So, what steps can be taken to ensure masks provide adequate levels of protection for the wearer and the task they are completing? This is where the completion of comprehensive risk assessments and face fit testing plays a vital role.

Here are the main areas to be aware of:

  1.  Risk assessments: To establish whether a mask is fit for purpose, a comprehensive risk assessment must be conducted to establish what work is being undertaken, what harmful substances may be generated from the work activity, the environment the wearer will be working in and does the mask meet the specific requirements of the wearer ie are they clean shaven, do they wear glasses, does the mask impair their visibility and can the wearer move freely.
  2. Choosing the correct mask: The risk assessment will help to identify the type of mask to be worn to adequately protect employees from any potential harmful substances.  Will the mask reduce exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health? Is the right protection factor and filters chosen, for the type of substance the wearer will be exposed to? 

***For clarification on which protective masks should be provided, the HSE has a comprehensive guide.

     3.  Face fit testing: It is an employer’s legal responsibility to ensure the mask fits the user correctly. Fit testing is a method of checking that a tight fitting facepiece matches the wearer’s facial features and seals adequately. A fit test should be carried out as part of the initial selection of the RPE. There are two types of face fit testing qualitative and quantitative. 

Qualitative is a pass/fail test that relies on the employee’s response to a test agent.  The worker will wear the mask and a test hood and a test aerosol is released into the hood whilst the wearer preforms a set of exercises. If the wearer can smell or taste the aerosol the respirator fails the test. Qualitative fit testing is only suitable for disposable respirators and half mask respirators.

Quantitative determines that a tight fitting respirator provides an adequate seal to the wearer’s face by measuring microscopic particles that exist in ambient air. The test measures the number of particles outside the respirator and then measures the concentration of those particles that leak into the respirator whilst the wearer carries out a number of specific exercises.

The only circumstances when testing is not required is when a risk assessment shows that a facepiece is only needed for comfort, for example to protect the worker from unpleasant odours, rather than as a control measure.

Carry out a ‘fit check’

A face fit test does not remove the need for the wearer to undertake a ‘fit check’ every time the mask is worn. A fit check should be carried out with the mask before each use. 

When carrying out a fit check, the wearer should:

  • Be clean shaven
  • Inspect the mask for signs of damage, check it is in good condition
  • Check the mask fits around the nose and chin and ensure the straps are in position
  • Cover the front of the respirator with both hands – for an unvalved product, exhale sharply, for a valved product, inhale sharply
  • A successful fit check is when there is no air leaking from the edges of the respirator
  • If leakage is detected, the worker must adjust the position or tension strap of the mask to tighten it
  • Wearers must retest the seal and repeat the procedure until the respirator is sealed properly.
Employee responsibilities

Although it is the business owner’s legal duty to supply the correct mask for each role, it is the employee’s responsibility to check and maintain the condition of their RPE. If their mask becomes damaged during a task, they must stop working and replace the mask immediately. Disposable masks must be disposed off at the end of each use or shift. Reusable masks should be cleaned after each use, checked for signs of deterioration and stored to prevent any damage. Employees must ensure the filters are changed as instructed by the manufacturer.  

The correct use of RPE is paramount for protecting staff from any potential hazards they face when undertaking their daily work activities. Only by adopting these precautionary measures and ensuring face fit testing is undertaken by all mask wearers can business owners fulfil their legal duties and successfully safeguard employees, maintenance workers and contractors against any potential airborne hazards. 

Remember a respirator wont protect you unless:
  • You use the right mask
  • You use the right filters
  • You have been trained
  • You fit it properly
  • You replace the filters
  • You store and clean it
  • It’s maintained properly

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