By Jeff Dutton, Risk Control Consultant, Hausmann-Johnson Insurance.
On April 3, 2020, OSHA issued enforcement guidance that temporarily permits extending and reusing respirators, as well as other alternatives. It also clarifies when respirators, including N95 masks, may continue to be used generally and in the health care setting. Below is an outline and summary of that guidance, as well as other OSHA considerations for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), safety measures in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and CDC recommendations regarding the same.
OSHA will use its discretion and will not issue citations to employers based on extending or reusing respirators by workers as long as the respirators maintain their structural and functional integrity and are not physically damaged, soiled, or contaminated. Before reusing a respirator, employees should confirm that it fits properly and perform a “user seal check” to ensure that air does not leak in and out.
Employers should therefore:
- Train workers on proper usage and disposal of damaged or worn respirators
- Make good faith efforts to find alternative respirators before using expired N95 masks
- Monitor their supply of masks and prioritize the use of masks in accordance with CDC guidance
- Take other measures to reduce the need for respiratory protection, where possible
When the use of expired N95 masks is necessary, OSHA recommends:
- Using only previously NIOSH-certified N95 masks
- Notifying workers that they are using expired masks
- Not commingling expired masks with other equipment that is within its shelf life
- Visually inspecting masks to ensure they fit and are not damaged or compromised
- Seeking assistance from the manufacturer or an independent lab for testing prior to use
OSHA generally encourages that all employers reassess their respiratory protection programs to identify changes that can decrease the need for N95 respirators given the nationwide shortage. OSHA’s enforcement guidance expressly allows employers “to consider use of alternative classes of respirators that provide equal or greater protection compared to an N95 FFR, such as NIOSH-approved, non-disposable, elastomeric respirators or powered, air purifying respirators (PAPRs).” OSHA also states that “[o]ther filtering face piece respirators, such as N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99, and P100, are also permissible alternatives for those who are unable to obtain N95 FFRs.” Thus, if the usage and protections are comparable and if they are “NIOSH-approved”, OSHA appears to take the position that they may be accepted under its interim enforcement rule. A list of NIOSH-approved PPE alternatives can be found on the CDC’s webpage here. Employers should also consult with manufacturer’s specifications, instructions, or testing information when making these sorts of comparative assessments and ultimate decisions on which alternative PPE to use.
All of this information can be viewed on the OSHA website. It is a great source for information on any changes, including the new temporary enforcement guidance for annual fit-testing for N95 masks that went into effect April 8, 2020.