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Do You Know the History of the 3M N95 and E•A•R Plug?

Throughout the last 50 years, there have been many advancements in helping protect the health and safety of workers all over the world. The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and U.S. Bureau of Mines certified the first disposable respirator 50 years ago. In that same year (1972), the first foam earplugs were also introduced. These milestones contributed to the development of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that we use today. Let’s take a look back at how this came to be.

History of the 3M N95 Particulate Respirator

Generations of 3M scientists and research teams contributed to the invention of 3M’s NIOSH-approved N95 filtering face-piece respirators that have been so critical for workers in all types of industries and during events such as natural disaster clean-up efforts as well as outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The filter of an N95 particulate respirator is designed to capture at least 95% of non-oil airborne particulates in the air that passes through it. The filter layers of 3M’s N95 disposable respirators are composed of nonwoven materials that are electrostatically charged. These respirators are designed to form a seal with the wearer’s face so that inhaled air passes through the filter. This combination of filtering and fit are key to the respirators’ remarkable performance.

The origins of today’s 3M N95 respirators date back to the development of nonwoven materials in the 1930s and 1940s at 3M. 3M scientist Al Boese invented the nonwoven materials that were used in 3M’s ribbon division before they became a key part of masks and respirators.

By as early as 1957, 3M was working on ideas for molded, cup-shaped masks made from nonwoven materials, initially inspired by molded nonwoven fabrics. By 1959, 3M scientists Walter Westberg and Patrick Carey filed a patent application on molded-shaped nonwoven articles, including “porous breath-filtering face masks used by surgeons, physicians, dentists, nurses, and by industrial workers subjected to dusty or contaminated atmospheres.”

In 1972, 3M introduced the first U.S. federal government-approved disposable filtering face-piece respirator for dusts. The 3M model 8710 single-use particulate respirator was jointly approved by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the newly created U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This respirator was a breakthrough for the industry, providing as it did a lightweight product that was able to filter particulates.

3M started using electrostatic filter media in filtering facepiece respirators in the late 1970s using the process described in U.S. Patent No. 4,215,682. That patent represents a key innovation in the advancement of highly effective filter media, with the electrostatic charge making the respirator more comfortable by requiring less breathing effort while maintaining high filtration efficiency – all with a relatively simple and lightweight product construction.

As pioneers in the field of respiratory protection, we not only invented the first NIOSH-approved filtering facepiece disposable respirator, but we also helped develop qualitative fit testing protocol used today. We have a deep bench of experienced and passionate scientists and application engineers eager to spread knowledge about and increase understanding of this crucial part of respiratory protection. We have fit testing labs all over the world and we also partner with reputable companies to offer fit testing support for your workforce.

Over the years 3M’s technologies have advanced, the methodologies have evolved, and the research has led to industry breakthroughs. But one thing has remained the same: 3M’s commitment applying science to life, helping protect worker health and safety on the job, including through the use of innovative 3M N95 respirators.

History of the Classic E•A•R Plug

In 1967, while immersed in his work at Norton Research Corporation (NRC) (later acquired by AEARO company that was then bought by 3M), Ross Gardner Jr. noticed that the joint sealants he was developing possessed unusual energy-absorbing properties. As a result, he asked for and was given the assignment of beginning work on an internal energy-absorbing-resins project, the name of which later became the basis for the acronym “E•A•R.” Ross developed a series of materials based upon epoxies, hybrid epoxy/vinyls, and vinyls (polyvinyl chloride). He then had the idea of turning these materials into an earplug to help dampen noise for workers who worked in loud environments.

Early in the history that led to the E•A•R Plug, the first of these energy-absorbing materials that entered the marketplace to help customers was a highly damped vinyl dubbed C-1002, which customers still buy from 3M today. The initial application of the material was in constrained-layer damping systems to help control sound and vibration in the foundry industry. Thereafter, a solid-vinyl version of the energy-absorbing resin followed in the form of a foam sheet material. Today, similar foam sheets have millions upon millions of foam ear plugs stamped out of them every year to help protect workers in all types of applications and industries.

From the beginning of its existence in the marketplace, the E•A•R Plug was recognized for its excellence in design, when Industrial Research magazine designated it, in 1972, as one of the 100 most significant new technical products of the year. Awards and recognition continued to accrue for the E•A•R Plug, such as inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2004 exhibition entitled “Humble Masterpieces,” which featured nearly 120 simple objects, from 3M™ Post-It® notes, to paper clips, M&Ms®, and the Frisbee® disk.

The materials, designs, and shapes of 3M N95 respirators and earplugs have evolved over time and are the result of decades of technical and design invention and innovation to enhance performance and comfort with input from many teams of 3M researchers. To learn more or for help selecting the right PPE for your employees and workplace, please do not hesitate to contact us.

This year the Personal Safety Division is celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the first U.S. Government-approved 3M filtering facepiece respirator (a precursor to what is now known as the N95), and the 3M™ E-A-R™ Classic™ Earplug. To all of our customers who have trusted 3M brand PPE between then and now, thank you.

Explore half a century of groundbreaking innovations in worker health and safety from 3M.

Resources: History and Development of the E•A•R Foam Earplug, Elliott H. Berger, MS, presented at the 127th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Cambridge, MA, June 1994