Breathe Easy: It’s N95 Respirator Day

N95 Respirator Day. Really?

By David Wylie, Senior Technical Writer

By David Wylie, Senior Technical Writer

Maybe NIOSH figured in the hubbub of other safety observances, we’d pick up the N95 banner and run with it, no questions asked.

Now, I get Stand Down for Safety. After all, falls are the leading cause of deaths among construction workers. Few would argue that taking a few minutes to stop work and discuss the importance of fall prevention is a waste time.

Same goes for the upcoming Drive Safely Work Week. Motor vehicle accidents claim more lives than any other type of workplace accident, regardless of industry. Why wouldn’t you take time to remember the importance of buckling up, staying alert, avoiding distractions and controlling your speed?

But when I heard N95 Respirator Day was fast approaching, my first thought was, “You mean those flimsy white masks people wear when they mow their lawns?”

Still, I figured I owed it to NIOSH to poke around and see if N95 Respirator Day is much ado about nothing or a legitimate safety issue that deserves your attention.

Consider this safety professional convinced.

Respirators help protect employees who work in environments with insufficient oxygen or where harmful dusts, fogs, smokes, mists, fumes, gases, vapors or sprays are present. Approximately 20 million workers are exposed to these airborne health risks every day, according to NIOSH. Any idea which respirator the majority of those workers turn to for protection?

If you guessed N95s, you’re right.

So with apologies to NIOSH, here are a few things you need to know about those flimsy white masks.

Break the code
N95 respirators are the most common, basic type of disposable respirators. They are commonly used by health care workers, researchers, construction workers and others whose jobs expose them to dust and small particles. N95 respirators protect users by filtering out hazardous particles in the air.

Use Your N95 Safely
Learn how to properly put on and remove your respirator. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for details.
Conduct a seal check every time you put a respirator on. Facial hair, piercings and anything else that interferes with the seal is strictly prohibited.
Never alter your N95. If you write on it, add fabric or staple anything to it, you void the NIOSH approval.
Discard your N95 after a single use.
Remember that N95 respirators, like other personal protective equipment, are your last line of defense against workplace hazards.

Filters fall into one of three categories:

  • N – Not resistant to oil
  • R – Resistant to oil
  • P – Oil proof

Furthermore, there are three levels of filter efficiencies: 95% (N95), 99% (N99) and N100 or HEPA filter (99.97% ).

So, an N95 respirator is not oil-resistant, and it filters 95 percent of the particles it is supposed to filter.

Get a medical evaluation
Under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard, workers who are required to wear a respirator due to a potential hazard in their work environment must be fit-tested, trained and medically evaluated. Medical evaluation is required once, prior to initial fit testing and use. However, you may have to be re-evaluated under certain circumstances. OSHA provides a medical evaluation form to facilitate the process.

Make sure your respirator is NIOSH-approved
To be considered OSHA-compliant, an N95 respirator must be NIOSH-approved. Look for the N95 or a NIOSH logo on the respirator or packaging.

There have been instances of manufacturers misrepresenting their products as NIOSH-approved. The most reliable way to tell whether NIOSH has approved a respirator is to look for the NIOSH TC# on the box or the produc. Sometimes, NIOSH rescinds respirator approvals at the manufacturer’s request or for cause. Refer to NIOSH’s website for a list of revoked respirator approvals.

Get fit tested annually
An N95 respirator requires a tight seal between the face and the mask. That is why OSHA requires users to get fit-tested. You only have to get tested annually unless you experience a physical change that could affect the respirator’s fit. Examples include large weight gain or loss, major dental work, facial surgery that changes the shape of your face, or significant scarring in the area of the seal.

Employers: Do you need a respiratory protection program?
If your employees are required to wear respirators, you must maintain a respiratory protection program. For more information on respiratory protection, visit the OSHA website, watch these videos and download this helpful publication.

Texas Mutual Insurance Company offers this information as general guidance. The company does not represent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), nor do its employees speak on OSHA’s behalf. This guidance does not constitute legal advice. The company encourages you to review the governmental regulations and, for specific guidance, contact your local OSHA field office or consult with your legal counsel.

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