- Function: Medical masks are designed to keep particles exhaled by the wearer from contaminating the patient and environment, whereas disposable respirators help protect the wearer from potentially hazardous particles in their work environment.
- Fit: Medical masks are worn loosely over the face (without adequate filtering or fitting attributes) whereas disposable respirators are designed to seal to the face of the wearer.
Stockpiling is a crucial part of a healthcare pandemic plan. This is why there are key considerations that should be taken into account to help ensure your stockpile contains products appropriately selected for their intended use in the event of a pandemic emergency.
Choosing the proper type of respirator for your stockpile
In the event of a pandemic, various personal protective equipment needs will be identified by leading agencies such as the Canada Public Health Agency, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC). Guidance documents are typically targeted towards healthcare workers but the guidelines can also be applied to essential service workers.
The Public Health Agency of Canada’s most recent guidance “Prevention and Control for Health Care Settings: Canadian Pandemic Influenza Preparedness: Planning Guidance for the Health Sector” (2017) outlines that respirators are to be used for workers to reduce the risk of inhaling hazardous airborne particles and aerosols including infectious agents. Contrary to this, a medical mask is to be used with a person that has a suspected or confirmed infection to help play a role in the prevention of transmission by reducing the amount of infectious material that is expelled into the environment. The U.S. CDC and WHO have similar recommendations: an N95 respirator or a higher level of respiratory protection should be worn by the worker and a medical mask should be worn by the patient with a suspected/confirmed airborne infection.
Differences between medical masks and disposable respirators
It is extremely important to fully understand the differences between medical masks and N95 particulate respirators when it comes to a pandemic situation.
In simple terms, a medical mask (or surgical mask) is not a personal protective respiratory device and it will not protect the wearer from pandemic or other biological aerosols.
There are many differences between medical masks and disposable respirators which can be classified by differences in function or differences in fit.
These key differences can affect protection levels during a pandemic situation which is why it is so important to emphasize that a NIOSH approved particulate respirator is designed to protect the wearer from exposures to airborne particles, including biological aerosols.
Conducting proper rotation of your stockpile is a vital aspect of a pandemic plan. Disposable respirators are consumable products which means they are not meant to last forever. This is why disposable respirators have a defined shelf life. Components can breakdown and deteriorate over time, leaving the respirator unable to meet the requirements it was approved for – potentially leaving wearers at risk.
3M recommends rotating your stockpile to ensure it doesn’t expire at the same time, thus maximizing the shelf life of stockpiled inventory. The best outcome of any stockpile is that it doesn’t need to be used, but if it does and respirators are expired, you may not have adequate supply to protect your workers and shortages in care or operation could occur.