Trying to decide whether you need to wear a disposable respirator or a surgical mask? You’ve come to the right place!

Respiratory protection is something that most people have become quite familiar with over the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However there is still a lot of confusion as to the level of protection provided by disposable respirators and surgical masks. In this article we break down some of the key features of each of these types of PPE so you have the knowledge to keep yourself and those around you safe.

To begin with, it’s important to know the intended purpose of these types of PPE. A disposable respirator is designed to protect the wearer from airborne particles. For healthcare applications, this is the likes of viruses and bacteria and is regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH). Whereas a surgical mask is designed to protect the environment from the wearer by creating a barrier which captures splashes, droplets and spit and is regulated through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Unlike a surgical mask, a disposable respirator is designed to filter out hazards in the environment. This is achieved through two key reasons, firstly, the electrostatic non-woven polypropylene fiber it’s made from traps tiny particles (down to 0.3 microns in size), and secondly, the tight-fitting seal created forces air to only be drawn in through the filter media. The overall filtration efficiency of these respirators are determined by the class number NIOSH assigns. For example, an N95 removes up to 95% of the airborne particulates breathing air, an N99 removes 99% and any respirator ending in 100, 99.97%.

Both forms of PPE are intended to be disposable. A respirator typically lasts a day, however, it can last for longer (or shorter) amounts of time depending on the hazards the wearer comes into contact with and if the mask is sterilized as we have seen throughout the pandemic shortages. A surgical mask on the other hand should generally be disposed of after each encounter with a patient, or each time it gets removed throughout the day.

If respiratory protection is a requirement in the workplace and you have implemented the use of a disposable respirator like an N95, then a respiratory protection programme is a must. This is to ensure that fit testing, proper use and storage of the PPE occurs. Without this, not only is there the potential risk to people’s health, but Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) citations for violations of the respiratory protection standard (1910.134) can cost thousands of dollars.

If you’re wanting something to protect you from COVID, then a respirator is what you need. Although surgical masks reduce the risk of droplets and aerosols coming into contact with others, these are loose-fitting and people can still contract the disease even when wearing a surgical mask. This is why it’s critical if you are wearing an N95 for example, that it has been fitted properly and you’re complying with the all the OSHA requirements to ensure the respirator is providing its intended level of protection.

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