CTEH frequently uses face masks during emergency responses to help protect workers from potential airborne pathogens, contaminants, and other unsafe particulates. However, there are several types available, from N95s to cloth face coverings. So, how do we know which kind is appropriate for our needs? Our health and safety experts are explaining below.

What is an N95 mask?
N95 masks are negative pressure particulate respirators, which are used to filter contaminants including tuberculosis, particulates, viruses, bacteria, dusts, and mists. They are considered air-purifying respirators (APR) and are certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

What will N95 masks protect against?
N95s filter out oil-free particulate aerosols such as SARS-COV-2 (COVID-19), dust, and bacteria. It does not protect against gases, vapors, or oil mist. For employees to be able to wear N95s in the workplace, they should undergo a medical evaluation by a Professional Licensed Health Care Professional (PLHCP) and take a Qualitative Fit Test.

Can N95s be worn without fit tests?
For the most effective protection, workers should use the type and size N95s as indicated by their fit tests. Individuals with facial hair that disturbs the respirator seal should not wear N95s. Without fit tests, N95s can provide some protection, but won’t function as intended.

How does the protectiveness of N95s differ from surgical masks?
N95 respirators are custom-fit and NIOSH-evaluated, tested, and approved. When they fit correctly, they filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles. An ASTM-certified/FDA-approved surgical mask resists fluids and protects against large droplets, splashes, and bodily fluids. However, their loose fit means leakage can occur during inhalation.

How do cloth masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases?
The CDC recommends Americans wear cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures are unavailable or difficult to maintain. These types of masks provide simple barriers to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling between people. Currently, the CDC recommends surgical and N95 masks be restricted to professional and health care use.

Have additional questions about which types of face masks may be appropriate for your workforce? Contact CTEH’s health and safety experts at webquestion@cteh.com.

Any scientific or medical information included in this article is current as of the date of publication; however, public health knowledge of COVID-19 is rapidly developing. Readers are advised to monitor national, state and local public health agencies for current recommendations regarding any infectious disease.