Facemask Standards Explained: Choosing the Right Mask for the Job

Over the course of the past year, the average person has learned more than they probably ever thought they would about masks and face coverings. While we’ve come to understand the role masks play in reducing the transmission of viruses, it’s important to understand how each type of mask works so you know which applications each best suited.

In this blog, we will explore the most common mask types and detail how they are graded, approved, and used in real world settings.

How do you choose the right facemask for the job?

Surgical Masks Grades and Levels of Protection

Surgical masks look similar, but not all offer the same level of protection. These masks are graded level 1 – 3 by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), based on five factors: bacterial filtration, particulate filtration, fluid resistance, breathability, and flammability. The grade level of any given surgical mask dictates the operations its best suited for:

  • Level 1: Graded for general use. Not used to resist penetration from aerosols, spray, or fluids.
  • Level 2: Graded to resist penetration for low to moderate levels of aerosols, spray, and fluids.
  • Level 3: Graded for use in environments with high risk of fluid, spray, or aerosol exposure.

Some surgical-style masks aren’t graded at all, so it’s important to make sure you know what you’re getting. Check to ensure the product you are purchasing carries an ASTM grade printed on the packaging before trusting it to protect your team.

N95 Masks: How and Why they Work

The N95 mask earned its name for its ability to filter out 95% of particulates above 0.3 microns, from the air we breathe in. That part we’re all relatively familiar with. But the physics behind how an N95 mask work are incredibly interesting. While the COVID-19 virus is smaller than 0.3 microns, it may be transferred via larger water droplets when people talk or breathe.

Surgical masks and cloth face coverings essentially work like a strainer, filtering out particles larger than the gaps between the fibers, but not particles that are smaller than the gaps. N95 masks can filter out particles that are much smaller than the gaps between their fibers because they aren’t designed to resist the particles. Instead, they’re built to trap particles in the mask and prevent them from passing through to the wearer. By stacking layers of sticky fibers on top of one another, N95 masks improve the odds that a particle gets stuck in the mask.

In addition to the layers of material, N95 masks are made with an electrostatic charge that works like a magnet to attract particles of all sizes to the fibers in the mask. With this charge, even neutral particles develop an internal electrical imbalance that attracts them to the source of the field. The result is that more particles from the air get trapped in the mask, and don’t make it to the wearer.

In addition to standard N95 masks, there are also valved versions. These valves are designed to close when a wearer inhales and open when they exhale, making it easier to breathe while wearing them. These versions protect the wearer but can pose a hazard for others in close proximity because they release unfiltered air from the wearer.

N95 vs. KN95Masks: What’s the Difference?An N95 mask sits on a table while the wearer takes a break.

While N95 masks offer better protection than surgical masks, there’s been a global shortage in their availability since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, we’ve seen the introduction of KN95 masks. While N95 masks are the US standard, KN95s are the Chinese standard. They have similar names and are designed to do similar things, but they are held to very different standards.

N95 masks must meet rigorous inspection and certification requirements established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and earn approval by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). KN95 manufacturers can seek approval from the FDA with documentation that the masks and materials used are authentic. While only N95 masks are approved for health-care use in the US, the CDC has authorized the use of KN95 masks as an alternative to N95s when availability of the approved masks is low.

Start with a Respiratory Program

A written respiratory program is required for any organization with a known respiratory hazard. Businesses without such a program or those who are not following the steps for proper implementation to protect their employees have been cited by OSHA for violations.

A properly written respiratory program will include evaluation of employees to ensure they are fit to do their jobs while wearing a mask. It also should include a fit test. The most influential factor in a mask’s ability to protect the wearer and others is whether it’s being worn correctly. Employees should be fit tested for the exact model of mask they are going to use.

French Gerleman works with companies in a variety of industries to present options for protecting your team in accordance with your respiratory program. Reach out to your account manager, chat online with us using the link below, or contact us today to start the conversation.

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