I’ve worked in and around chemical laboratories all my adult life, from college to graduate school and then on to industry. Suffice to say the use of personal protective equipment has been a matter of everyday life for me. Regulations and company policy (and common sense) always dictated what I must wear to protect myself from harm in the laboratory. A lab coat, safety glasses or goggles, and chemical-resistant gloves have always been part of my everyday life. What I have used less frequently over the years are masks. Fume hoods in the lab prevented me from inhaling dangerous chemicals. But today, things are different for the entire world. With pathogens such as the virus that causes COVID-19 becoming more widespread, it’s time that we all evaluated the need for masks outside of the laboratory environment.
For those of you unfamiliar with masks and how they work, this can be a confusing time. With some online research and discussions with your healthcare provider as well as the information below you can be more informed about what it takes to protect yourself and your families from airborne pathogens such as mold, bacteria, and viruses. It’s relatively easy if you just remember the three C’s: Choose, Construction, and Cleanliness.
Choose the right mask.
Masks are really meant to do one thing: prevent you from inhaling something that would cause physical harm. Masks are meant to cover both the nose and the mouth to offer filtration of air entering your body. Generally, masks are categorized as to what level of protection they provide. Some protect against inhalation of dust, some against chemical fumes, and some against exposure to pathogens such as mold spores, bacteria, or viruses.
Masks range from simple, inexpensive, disposable paper dust masks, such as those you see used by wood workers and painters, to the complex self-contained “moon suits” used in microbiology laboratories studying hazardous bacteria and viruses. Simple, inexpensive paper masks are adequate to protect against inhalation of particulates such as dust, sawdust, and paint particles, but offer no protection against chemical fumes and viruses. None of us can afford to buy (or maintain) a full “moon suit” and it wouldn’t be practical for grocery shopping even if we could. So somewhere in the middle is a match that offers the best balance of protection and practicality. Some masks are designed to protect you, and some are designed to protect others from you. Read the technical information about the mask to determine your best option.
Construction and Fit
To offer real protection, a mask must filter all the air entering your nose and mouth, so a good fit is important. The mask must offer adequate coverage on your face. A good fit over the bridge of the nose is important. And if you have a beard, this might impact the design of the mask you choose. If the mask doesn’t fit correctly, air leaks around it and you lose some protection.
Design impacts comfort and convenience. Do your research and choose a mask that fits well, offers the protection that you need, and is relatively comfortable to use. Check the specifications to see if it passes enough air to be comfortable. This is particularly important if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, or any condition that restricts your breathing. Always consult your healthcare provider about what type of mask is best for you if you have difficulty breathing. Some of us who are a bit claustrophobic also take special care to select a mask that offers both protection and high airflow.
And finally, use the mask. It will do you no good in your pocket. Wear it wherever and whenever necessary to protect yourself. And always follow the manufacturer’s directions.
A dirty mask can be uncomfortable and smell bad. Maintaining the usefulness of your mask is important to its effectiveness. A mask that you don’t want to wear because it’s nasty does you no good. Keep your mask clean and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for cleaning and maintaining your mask for maximum effectiveness. Don’t use harsh cleaners that might damage the mask. Repair or replace it if it gets damaged. Damage that causes loose fit or holes in the mask compromises its effectiveness. And remember, when cleaning a mask, protect yourself against anything on the outside of the mask and that might be released by the cleaning process by using rubber or nitrile gloves during cleaning. Wash your hands afterward.
We hope this information will be helpful to you as you choose and use masks to protect yourself and your employees. For additional information on protection during this COVID-19 outbreak, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines (CDC).
Written by Larry G. Beaver, PhD., Clean Safely VP of Research & Development
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