Respirators: Pursuing the Perfect Fit

Respirators: Pursuing the Perfect Fit

A NIOSH/NPPTL challenge aims to foster technology that helps improve respirator fit to protect workers from respiratory hazards.

Dust. Fumes. Vapors. Particulate. Gases. Workers in many industries wear respirators to protect them from a wide spectrum of dangerous respiratory hazards. That said, their respirators are only as good as their fit. An ill-fitting respirator can result in leaks, significantly reducing its protective capabilities and exposing the worker to harmful substances.

A properly fitting respirator forms a tight seal against the face with no gaps, preventing these hazardous substances from being inhaled and causing health issues, such as respiratory diseases, chemical poisoning, or long-term organ damage. Also, when workers feel confident that their protective equipment is effective, they are more likely to use it consistently and correctly, enhancing the overall safety culture within the workplace.

This is why, in industries such as healthcare, construction, manufacturing, and chemical handling, where the risk of exposure to hazardous substances is high, a well-fitting respirator is essential — and required.

“When respirators are used in the workplace, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that the workplace have a respiratory protection program in place, and part of that respiratory protection program is initial fit testing as well as annual fit testing,” says Maryann D’Alessandro, Ph.D., the Director of the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL), the research center within the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

However, while many workplaces have these respiratory protection programs in place, there are many instances where those using respirators might not have access to fit testing programs, she adds. (Think of the public during recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and wildland fires, for example.) 

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that no two faces are the same; people’s faces vary significantly in shape and size, making the need for proper fit all the more universal. So, improving respirator fit and fit evaluation is an evolving endeavor. 

Respirator Fit Evaluation Challenge

This is why the NPPTL started the Respirator Fit Evaluation Challenge. A collaboration between NIOSH/NPPTL, Capital Consulting Corporation and the NASA Tournament Lab, the challenge aims to foster the development of innovative and improved methods for assessing the fit of respirators to enhance worker protection. The challenge invites innovators to submit ideas through a multi-phase process, including initial proposal submission, development of prototypes, and final testing, to identify and advance new technologies for respirator fit evaluation.

The types of solutions entered in the challenge can approach improving mask fit from different angles:

• Innovations determining fit after putting on the respirator.

• Innovations that determine fit continuously while the respirator is being worn.

• Qualitative or quantitative fit evaluation solutions.

Approaches to improving mask fit have employed LIDAR, optical gas imaging, and real-time temperature sensing. Concepts have marrying sensing and computing power for solutions such as AI analysis of face mapping data, as well as materials engineering to create facemask gaskets that change color depending on pressure or humidity variations inside and outside the respirator, notes Adam Smith, Ph.D., Senior Scientist with NPPTL.

“This challenge is focused on filtering facepiece respirators, so if you’re thinking about those specific types of respirators, you know, first, they must be put on correctly,” Smith explains. “They must fit snuggly against the user’s face — no gaps between the user’s skin and the respirator seal — and they must achieve the filtration efficiency, which, is 95 percent, 99 percent, or 99.97 percent filtration efficiency.”

In Phase 1 of the Respirator Fit Evaluation Challenge, participants were asked to submit 10-page concept proposals outlining their innovative approaches for improving respirator fit testing methods. Entrants submitted innovative ideas that could revolutionize the way respirator fit is evaluated. From those entries, the challenge selected 20 winning entries last July to receive Phase 1’s $5,000 awards and an invitation to enter Phase 2.

In Phase 2, entrants moved onto prototyping, with winning concepts building a prototype based on their submission. Evaluation reports and video demonstrations were also required as part of the entry process. In March, NIOSH selected nine winners who will equally share the Phase 2 purse of $100,000:

• TruFIT LLC – Fail-safe, visual, and real-time fit indicators for facial PPE, such as masks and respirators.

Richárd Ádám Vécsey and Axel Ország-Krisz, Team rixel
An AI-assisted mobile application and its infrastructure to give immediate feedback to the user about the fit of the selected filtering facepiece respirator.

OpenAeros LLC – OpenFT: A low-cost, open source, quantitative fit tester that pairs a unique non-destructive sampling probe with an open source condensation particle counter to deliver real time respirator fit measurement.

Philip Neustrom – FitTests4All Home Fit Testing Kit: An affordable respirator evaluation solution designed for both home and on-the-go use.

Tony Jiang – TIR: A solution that harnesses the mechanics of temperature sensors to determine respirator fit in real-time. 

Sungmee Park and Sundaresan Jayaraman – A fabric-based sensor network integrated into a filtering facepiece respirator continuously and unobtrusively monitors the respirator fit and provides alerts when face seal leakage could compromise fit.

Consequent Labs – A novel solution to enable rapid, user-friendly, and highly-scalable respirator fit testing of professional users and the general public for routine use and during public health emergencies.

Mobomo – Fit & Breathe: Complete particulate filtering facepiece respirator management.

MyMaskMovement – Mobile app that makes fit testing inclusive/accessible.

Now underway, Phase 3 comprises the demonstration and NIOSH testing period, with submissions of functional prototypes delivered for Evaluation due May 15. During this phase, selected winning submissions from Phase 2 will build pre-production prototypes for NIOSH evaluation. Winners of this phase will receive a monetary award, with first place awarded $75,000, second place earning $50,000, and third place receiving $25,000.

“There’s a quantitative and qualitative component to the Phase 3 evaluation,” Smith explains. “There will be some physical testing and measurements performed, and some qualitative analysis of what an entry’s technology is, what it can do, and its readiness.”

And that’s where the partnership with other entities can really help, Smith notes. 

“We’re partnering with NASA,” he says. “That gives us access to some very applied platforms to conduct the challenge.”

That partnering helps spread the word.

“Because this is a niche area and we wanted to make sure that we received really good solutions. [The NASA partnership] is another mechanism to get information out there; they help with the spread of the information coming out of this challenge,” Smith adds.

A Multi-Faceted Mission

Ultimately, the Respirator Fit Evaluation Challenge is just one part of a multi-faceted mission blending various approaches to improve mask fit for workers, Director D’Alessandro underscores. In addition to the challenge, NIOSH/NPPTL was instrumental in the ASTM consensus standard development of the test method for respirator fit capability, and she notes there is a possibility of incorporating that in federal regulation in the future. Also, a train-the-trainer program for respirator outreach, training, education, and community testing will improve access to fit testing for workers who don’t have respiratory protection programs, and it could be applicable to the public. Also, D’Alessandro notes NIOSH is in the alpha stages of developing a mobile facial scanning smartphone app to assist in mask fitting.

“It’s an objective of ours to identify these innovative solutions to assess and validate fit, to improve adoption by end users” D’Alessandro says underscores the reticence of some workers to participate in annual fit testing. “The hope is that this will help us identify a future with innovative approaches to know that a product fits you.”

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2024 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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