With the COVID-19 pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies have become essential for more than just health care workers but also for the health of the general public and our national economy. Key considerations to getting businesses back open are following local and federal PPE mandates as well keeping employees and those around them safe. Masks in the workplace are recommended by OSHA, and many businesses are opting to provide face masks for employees.
However, safety does not always mean comfort, and comfort can sacrifice safety, especially when it comes to face masks. Most face masks were not created with a 40-hour work week, sports teams, or external work environments in mind. So, what type of mask should you choose if you want to purchase some for your employees? Read on for 10 tips to consider when making that decision.
- Look for masks that meet published standards – Without a universal safety standard to refer to, it is difficult to know which face masks are the most effective. Now, ASTM International, an international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards, has published F3502, a barrier face covering standard for general-use masks. This marks the first voluntary standard directed at face coverings and is intended to apply to the general public and workers.To determine if they meet these standards, masks are tested by independent third-party companies, meaning you can be confident that the mask will keep your employees and those around them safe. Products that meet the standard can be labeled as “MEETS ASTM F3502.”
- Make sure your employees can breath when wearing the mask – According to ASTM, breathability is the degree to which a product worn over the nose and mouth restricts the ability of the wearer to inhale and exhale. Masks with good breathability have a structure with less resistance to airflow, but this often means that super small particles, like the SARS-CoV-19 virus that causes COVID-19, can pass through the structure and infect the wearer . Readily available cloth masks typically have pretty good breathability.
On the other hand, N95 masks and others like them are difficult to breathe through and can be uncomfortable, and even unsafe, when worn for hours.What’s a value that means your employees will be able to breathe comfortably for an entire shift? Look for a mask with a breathability measurement ≤15 mm H2O.
- Keep employees safe with a mask that filters out the majority of even the smallest particles – According to ASTM, filtration measures the ability of a barrier face covering to capture aerosolized particles smaller than one micron. A higher filtration efficiency indicates that fewer particles pass through the material and the face covering is better at protecting the wearer and those around them from infection.
Most cloth masks keep out <~40% particles smaller than a micron in the air, which puts the wearer at risk of infection, so look for a mask that filters more than 50% of these particles.
- Ensure a good fit and avoid gaps around the cheeks and nose – ASTM defines leakage, or fit, as the evaluation of a barrier face covering for its potential to:
– fit snugly to the wearer’s face (at least over their nose and mouth)
– reduce the likelihood that unfiltered air leaks from the wearer’s nose or mouth to the outside environmentWhen masks don’t fit well, they can cause particles to flow in and out of the gaps. They also often slip off the wearer’s face, causing the wearer to fidget with them, which decreases their effectiveness. For enhanced protection, no matter the mask, a quick way to improve the fit of a face mask is by using a mask brace or mask fitter.
- Consider alternatives to non-medical face masks made of cloth – Face masks made of nonwoven materials can offer the breathability of a cloth mask while maintaining the filtration of an N95 mask. For instance, leaders in the nonwoven and biopolymer industries have developed a bicomponent spunbond material that doesn’t require a meltblown filtration layer. This type of innovative nonwoven material combines the qualities needed for both comfort and safety.
- Buy U.S.-made face masks – Early in the pandemic, the U.S. faced an N95 mask shortage. The majority of the materials for N95 masks as well as the N95 masks themselves are manufactured internationally, and materials and masks in the U.S. remain in short supply to this day.Look for a face mask that is made, manufactured, and distributed in the U.S. to ensure a consistent supply of materials. Plus, buying a U.S.-made mask supports local jobs!
- Don’t overlook ease of communication – Masks muffle sound and can make it more difficult to understand speech and some higher-pitched voices. This is especially important in a work environment where communication is essential.Test masks by trying to talk while wearing it. Are you easy to understand? If not, the mask is likely not a good choice for employees to wear while at work.
- Stay sustainability-centered – It’s estimated that 1.56 billion face masks entered the ocean in 2020, and it’s no wonder considering the widespread use of flimsy, single-use masks.Durable face masks that can be reused multiple times can help reduce your company’s carbon footprint and energy use.
- Focus on finding a mask maker who will be a good business partner – You will need to ensure a continuous supply as masks are used and discarded. Most consumer-facing companies will not be able to ensure the supply that you need. Working with a commercial mask manufacturer that has your interests in mind and the capacity to manufacture at scale will help ensure your mask demand can be met. Make sure to vet all potential mask suppliers on their third-party testing results and mask characteristics before making any purchasing decisions.
- Keep an eye out for counterfeits and false marketing claims – Counterfeit masks are unfortunately overabundant for many reasons, including the unprecedented demand and lack of supply. And to increase sales, some mask makers market false claims about the safety of their masks.Avoid counterfeit masks by looking for incorrect spellings or improper verbiage on the mask or packaging. Research marketing claims that boast of certification. For instance, it’s not possible to be “ASTM-certified.” Manufacturers can only claim to meet the ASTM standard through third-party testing, when they can label the mask as “MEETS ASTM F3502.”
Bringing workers back safely is a key element to defeating the pandemic, getting the economy back on track, and ensuring employee satisfaction. Providing face masks for your workforce that were chosen based on these 10 considerations will ensure you will have an ample supply that will keep them safe, comfortable, and productive.
The Aries Work Week Mask was made with the worker in mind. Learn more about how its properties align with these 10 tips. Contact us today.