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What to Look for in an N95 Mask (and How to Spot a Fake)
If a company is looking to purchase N95 masks, chances are some, if not all, of its employees need respiratory protection due to contagious or infectious diseases, chemicals and other dangerous inhalants. There are many factors that go into the N95 purchasing decision, from price and quality to comfort and production origins.
In a market that first lacked critical PPE due to an over-reliance on offshore goods and then became rife with inferior or counterfeit products, how can you be sure that you are purchasing a quality product that will keep employees safe?
This checklist can help to guide you through the decision process:
Perhaps the clearest and most important indicator to look for in an N95 respirator is the symbol of NIOSH certification. NIOSH stands for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and is a division of the CDC. NIOSH is responsible for N95 mask approval and certifies an N95 as a legitimate particulate respirator. Like other governing and regulatory bodies, NIOSH has standards, requirements and tests that products, product lines, manufacturers and manufacturer quality control systems must meet for approval. For example, an N95 respirator must filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles - hence the name.
The road to NIOSH approval can be lengthy, ranging from four to eight months. Still, the extensive and rigorous process ensures that products, like N95 masks, meet the quality, safety and performance standards to be sold in their categories and adequately protect individuals.
Fit and Feel
Typically, manufacturers design N95 respirators with protection, not comfort in mind. If you think back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not hard to conjure up images in your mind of frontline workers with faces bruised from the extended use of these masks. Part of this discomfort comes from the fact that an N95 respirator has straps that go around the head for a tight, secure fit. Yet, N95 masks often need to be worn for several hours at a time. This makes comfort a vital feature to ensure employees wear their N95 respirators correctly so that they can abide by facility rules and continue doing their jobs.
More mask manufacturers are increasingly prioritizing protection with comfort, finding ways to innovate processes to accommodate both features equally. Key questions to consider when buying a mask include:
● Is this mask easier to breathe through?
● Does the design and fit mitigate eyeglass fogging?
● Does the mask fit a variety of face shapes and sizes?
Along with being comfortable and protective, it is essential that an N95 respirator fits well. In fact, the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard requires that fit tests be conducted for workers required to wear respiratory protection. In addition to respirators, manufacturers and distributors will typically carry fit test kits for employers to meet their annual fit-test guidelines.
You get what you pay for when it comes to N95 masks. Price may be the critical element decision-makers are looking for when purchasing N95 respirators, but improperly arming employees with cheap, low-quality imports could impact their health, safety and lung protection.
Look for manufacturers specializing in materials and engineering innovation that continually work to keep price points competitive.
U.S.--Made and Manufactured
If your company values purchasing U.S.--made goods, it is important to pay attention to not just where a finished N95 respirator comes from but where the raw materials that make up the mask originate. A company can claim to have a domestically produced mask, but if that company sources any of the raw materials from other countries, such as the filter media or the head straps, then it is not an authentic U.S.--made mask.
Domestic vendors who make or source all their N95 respirator materials in the US have shorter supply chains that don’t need to cross international boundaries. This eliminates various risk factors inherent in the geopolitics of trade and allows for quicker response times. Also, quality is a concern when buying masks internationally or sourcing some of the materials from outside the U.S. For example, the melt blown fabric used as the inner static filter of an N95 respirator can lose charge and effectiveness when shipped in containers overseas, ultimately making the masks less safe and effective.
Legitimate vs. Counterfeit
One of the most significant PPE issues of the last year has been the rise in counterfeit products. There have been countless stories in the news over the previous year about hospitals and health systems getting struck with faulty masks and government agencies having to confiscate shipments of counterfeit masks at various ports of entry and warehouses across the country.
So how can someone tell the difference between an authentic N95 respirator and a fake one? There are some telltale signs to look for:
● Consistency - all the masks should look the same and feel the same in quality and construction. Noticeable differences or variations should serve as a red flag.
● Labeling - verified, legitimate masks will have the correct NIOSH TC numbers listed, and just like a vehicle identification number (VIN), you can trace this number using the CDC’s certified equipment search function to check a mask’s validity.
● Lot Numbers - as part of an N95 respirator’s NIOSH certification, all masks must carry lot numbers. Check with the mask manufacturer for lot number legitimacy and verify the distributor.
● Pricing - if the number of masks available or the price being charged is way out of line with what you see across the market, these are grounds for suspicion.
● Verify the Source - as a general rule of thumb, buying N95 masks from verified sources such as major distributors, retailers, or direct from the manufacturer is the surest way to avoid purchasing fake products.
These five considerations will help companies navigate the market and make smarter purchasing decisions when they need a new supply of N95 masks that are legitimate, high quality, protective and comfortable.
Nancy Sabin, Q.S.S.P is the Product Marketing Manager, Shawmut Corporation