The COVID-19 crisis is creating a huge demand and shortage of NIOSH approved N95 respirators and diverting supplies from industry to health care workers. Protecting health care workers is a priority, but what happens to foundries who must protect workers and stay in compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations governing respirable crystalline silica, lead, cadmium or hexavalent chromium?
First, what does N95 mean and why is it important? The NIOSH N95 designation means that when properly worn, the respirator will block at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) test particles. NIOSH tests and certifies the respirators and lists the approved ones by manufacturer on its web site: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/disp_part/N95list1sect3.html.
One way to alleviate the shortage is to reduce demand. This can be done in several ways:
Limit voluntary use. Many foundries allow workers to use respirators even when not required by exposure levels that exceed regulatory limits. While nice to do, this voluntary use reduces the number of respirators available to those who are required to wear them. So one of the first things that can be done is to restrict the supply of respirators to only those required to wear them.
Extend use. In some cases disposable respirators are discarded and replaced more often than need be. For example, a respirator may be thrown away at lunch time and replaced with a new one after lunch. Respirators can be damaged when stuffed in a pocket or tossed on a work bench when not in use. Respirators must be replaced when they become discolored, damaged, or clogged so that breathing becomes difficult. With proper use and care a respirator may be able to last more than one shift. It is important to store the respirator in a container or a paper or plastic bag when not in use so it does not get contaminated.
Reduce exposures. If respirable silica is the contaminant of concern, rotation of workers may be an option to lower the average exposure of each worker to below the 50 µg/m3 Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) as a Time Weighted Average (TWA). This presumes that there are enough workers in low dust areas and that the exposures in the areas of concern are not too high. For example, if the average exposure level on a job is 75 µg/m3, rotating workers after 4 hours in that area to an area with an exposure of 20 µg/m3 for the other 4 hours would bring the TWA to 48 µg/m3, which is just below the PEL. For some foundries, it may be possible to modify schedules so that a dusty job is performed over multiple shifts in order to bring the TWA exposure of any one individual to below the PEL.
Some foundries have had trouble with respirators being taken in number, by employees, for use outside of work. For that reason, it is suggested that respirators be handed out one by one to workers in high dust areas, perhaps at your tool crib or by the supervisor at the start of the shift.
Another way to address the shortage is to use other styles of respirators. Options include disposable respirators with other ratings (e.g. N99, N100, R95, P95, P99, P100), reusable elastomeric facepiece respirators with N95 or better rated filters, PAPRs with particulate filters or air supplied hoods. The number designation, 99 or 100 means a higher percent efficiency than 95%. The “P” or “R” designation refers to protection against oil in addition to particulates.
The CDC also recognizes equivalent respirators that are certified by other countries under a testing program that meets or exceeds the performance of the N95 respirator. These include such designations as KN95 from China, P2 from Australia, FFP2 from Europe and N95 from Mexico, as well as higher efficiency versions. A complete list can be found at the CDC webpage: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/respirators-strategy/crisis-alternate-strategies.html.
A few additional words of caution. If the type of required use respirator is changed, a new medical evaluation will be necessary for each employee using them. In most cases the responses on the respirator questionnaire will be the same, but in some cases the medical reviewer may need to do a follow up interview or examination to make sure the worker is medically qualified to wear the new respirator. New fit-testing is also necessary when/if a new type of tight-fitting respirator is used. Additional training will be necessary if the style of respirator changes so employees know how to use, store, maintain and clean reusable respirators.
Finally, it should be noted that there are counterfeit N95 respirators for sale. If you are not dealing with your normal supplier, it would be good to go to the NIOSH web site shown in the second paragraph above to confirm your manufacturer, and the respirator make and model are approved by NIOSH.