As mask wearing becomes mandated in most communities, we wanted to provide guidance about the difference between masks and respirators and offer information about fit testing. Per the CDC, masks are fluid-resistant and provide protection against large droplets, splashes or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids. Masks also protect others from the wearer’s respiratory emissions. By contrast, a respirator reduces the wearer’s exposure to particles including small particle aerosols and large droplets. When properly fitted, respirators like the N95 have the ability to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, large and small, when it is properly fitted. That’s why these respirators are so important for our medical professionals and first responders.
So, what does “properly fitted” mean, and how do you know if your respirator is properly fitted? The only way to be sure is by performing a fit test, which shows you how your respirator fits you properly and can protect you when used correctly. If employees are required to use respirators, employers are responsible for ensuring respirators pass a fit test by testing the same make, model and size of respirator that they would be using on the job. In addition, before you use a respirator or receive a fit test, your employer must ensure that you are medically able to wear it. Certain pulmonary and respiratory conditions make it harder to breathe with a tight-fitting respirator on, making it less safe if you have one of these conditions.
What is a fit test exactly? A fit test should not be confused with a user seal check. A user seal check is a quick check performed by the wearer each time the respirator is put on. It determines if the respirator is properly seated to the face or needs to be readjusted. A fit test, however, tests the seal between the respirator's facepiece and your face. It is performed before you begin wearing a respirator and conducted at least annually. After passing a fit test with a respirator, you must use the exact same make, model, style and size respirator on the job.
Typically, employers perform a qualitative fit test. Qualitative fit testing is a pass/fail test method that uses your sense of taste or smell or monitors your reaction to an irritant in order to detect leakage into the respirator facepiece. Qualitative fit testing does not measure the actual amount of leakage. Whether the respirator passes or fails the test is based simply on you detecting leakage of the test substance into your facepiece. There are four types of substances that can be used to perform a fit test:
Isoamyl acetate, which smells like bananas.
Saccharin, which leaves a sweet taste in your mouth.
Bitrex, which leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
Irritant smoke, which can cause coughing.
Not everyone can get a good fit with one specific respirator. If the respirator fails the fit test, then another make, model, style or size must be tried until one is found that fits you properly. When you've completed the fit testing process, it's very important that you know which type of respirator fits your face properly, and when and where you'll need to wear it for protection.
The fit of your respirator must be retested whenever you have a change in physical condition that could affect the fit of your respirator, such as:
Large weight gain or loss.
Major dental work, such as new dentures.
Facial surgery that may have changed the shape of your face.
Significant scarring in the area of the seal.
In March 2020, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration offered temporary enforcement guidance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This guidance provides OSHA field offices with the discretion to not cite an employer for violations of the annual fit testing requirement as long as employers meet certain conditions. Review these conditions described in the memorandum here to be sure you are meeting these revised requirements.
Tioga has the ability to perform fit testing for your workers using N95 or other tight-fitting respirators, and if you have any questions about the requirements, please give us a call.