Respiratory Protection Options in Healthcare

In the healthcare industry, the importance of respiratory protection is often overlooked. Choosing the correct respirator for the exposure level and work task is a critical component of a respiratory protection program.  Most healthcare workers are aware of the N95 respirator but may not be aware that the re-formable, reusable elastomeric respirators are a viable option for respiratory protection.

Elastomeric respirators with N95 cartridges have been used during aerosol transmissible disease outbreak emergencies like SARS as a reusable N95 respirator option. (CDC-NIOSH January 20, 2012) They are a cost-efficient and sustainable alternative when the demand for disposable respirators is excessive.

Surgical masks are not respirators. They are disposable coverings designed to be loose-fitting over the user’s nose and mouth. These loose-fitting masks leave gaps between the mask and the wearer’s face through which harmful particles may pass. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not address the fit function of masks and surgical masks are not NIOSH approved, the mask may not be used in situations covered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within areas requiring the use of respiratory protection. Therefore surgical masks should never be used for protection against infectious aerosolized particles.

A summary of various types of respiratory protection for the healthcare setting, as provided by NIOSH, including elastomeric respirators, is included here.  It is important to understand the most suitable respiratory protection option given the potential hazards of a situation.