The Advantages and Importance of Elastomeric Respirators

The Advantages and Importance of Elastomeric Respirators

These reusable and cost-effective masks have been used by workers for years.

What are Elastomeric Respirators? 

Elastomeric respirators are tight-fitting respirators that provide greater-than-N95-level protection and are made to be safely reused for years. You may be hearing more and more lately about elastomeric masks online and in the media. These types of reusable rubber half masks are nothing new and have been a staple piece of PPE for many workers across various industries for decades. These types of reusable respirators are reliable, comfortable, cost-effective and safer than any disposable mask on the market. Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about elastomeric respirators. 

Elastomeric respirators are made by dozens of manufacturers and typically use N95, N99, N100 or P100 level filters. These are the most common reusable respirators found in homes and workplaces due to the added protection and their cost-effectiveness compared to disposable N95s.

They are commonly found in mining, auto repair, construction, agricultural, pharmaceutical and home renovation industries. Rubber half masks like these can be bought online and in your local hardware stores. Several provinces have massive stockpiles that were bought for healthcare workers that have been locked up for future pandemics since the first wave.

Some elastomeric respirators are made for industrial use while others are made for healthcare workers, teachers and others that need the best protection possible from deadly viruses, wildfire smoke, environmental allergens and more. 

Facts About Elastomeric Respirators

Hospitals have been successfully using reusable elastomeric respirators as superior alternatives to disposable Filtering Facepiece Respirator (FFR) N95s for infection control since 1996.

Cities like Winnipeg, MB Canada have been using elastomeric respirators to protect firefighters, police and paramedics from COVID-19 since March 2020. New York stopped buying FFR N95s for firefighters and EMS in November 2020 and upgraded to elastomeric respirators instead.

A study by the American College of Surgeons published in June 2020 shows that elastomeric respirators were so well-liked by the thousands of Health Care Workers (HCWs) that used them that after the trial was finished, not one out of the 2,000 HCWs wanted to stop using them and go back to using disposable N95s. 

The CDC recommends elastomeric respirators as disposable N95 alternatives during the SARS, H1N1 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

A pandemic preparedness plan titled “Roadmap for Living with COVID” was produced under the guide of former Biden Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board member Ezekiel J. Emanuel, who has estimated that it will cost $100 billion or more to fully prepare the nation for future variants and pandemics moving forward. Noted paragraphs in the PPE section include: 

  • “The national stockpile should be replenished with elastomeric and powered air-purifying respirators for healthcare workers, which must be deployed immediately as future surges or pandemics occur.” 
  • “The supply chain of respirator manufacturing must be considered a national and economic security priority. Where necessary, domestic manufacturing capacity for respirators must be assured.” 
  • “Healthcare workers with direct patient care responsibilities should top the priority list for personal protective equipment. They must be provided reusable respirators such as elastomeric half-mask respirators for the remainder of the pandemic.” 
  • “Next on the priority list are people who work in nonhealthcare high-risk settings like emergency services, meat packing, poultry, food processing, corrections, grocers, and warehousing. These are followed by workers in moderate risk settings such as restaurants, retail, and transportation.”

The Advantages of Elastomeric Respirators

NIOSH certified. Elastomeric respirator manufacturers must get their respirators approved by Health Canada and/or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This eliminates the risk of fraudulent and unsafe products flooding the market and ensures high-grade protection that meets safety regulations and requirements.

Source control. Elastomeric respirators provide better source control than surgical masks and better protection from droplets and airborne transmissions versus surgical masks and N95s.

Domestic supply chain. Because elastomeric respirators are made in the U.S. by manufacturers, they can take away our dependency on foreign suppliers, create more jobs for North American workers and prevent disruptions along the domestic supply chain by preventing infections which would also help stabilize the economy and reverse the rise in inflation.

Reduce counterfeit products. The widespread adoption of elastomeric masks can eliminate the need for importing KN95s, which the CDC has said that six out of 10 are counterfeit, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has shown large retailers and pharmacies accidentally selling counterfeit KN95s.

Reusable, safer and sustainable. Disposable N95 respirators do not provide an effective seal when reused more than a handful of times. Although disposable respirators meet the OSHA requirements for respiratory protection where a half facepiece is needed, the challenge with any disposable respirator is the ability to conduct a proper fit check when entering a hazardous environment throughout the day. NIOSH-approved disposable respirators are unable to continue to provide an effective seal when reused. Consider when a worker who is fit tested on a particular style of N95 disposable respirator then goes to work. They must shape the respirator each time they don it to secure a fit. Each time they shape the disposable respirator around their nose, it reduces the integrity of the structural shape of the mask, which prevents it from providing an effective seal. The use of an elastomeric half mask with the appropriate filters will allow the individual to conduct a fit check every time they put on the mask. This will ensure a proper fit and protection.

Two important studies were conducted to support this. The first, titled “Effectiveness of Elastomeric Half-Mask Respirators vs N95 Facepiece Respirators During Simulated Resuscitation,” found that 36 participants fitted with EMHR had 0 percent fit failure, and 28 percent of those fitted with an FFR had a fit failure.2 The second case study, called “Failure Rates During Reuse of Disposable N95 Masks in Clinical Practice in the Emergency Department,” found that disposable N95 masks have significant failure rates following reuse in clinical practice. Healthcare personnel also performed poorly in assessing the integrity of the seal of their disposable respirators. 

In addition, elastomeric respirators can be safely reused for years so they can provide long-term sustainability and be stored after use for future pandemics or emergency situations. 

Better fit for all faces. NIOSH-sizing protocols drastically underrepresent women and Asian face shapes and sizes for FFRs. Elastomeric masks come in two sizes to provide a better fit and seal qualities for all face shapes and sizes. Unlike many disposable N95s, there are elastomeric masks in kid’s sizes available by some manufacturers.

More comfortable. Some elastomeric masks have cooler internal temperatures compared to wearing a disposable respirator including a surgical-style mask. Say goodbye to face rash and mask acne when you switch to a reusable half mask.

Less waste. Reusable half masks can eliminate billions of disposable masks from littering streets, landfills, rivers, lakes and oceans. We can reduce landfill waste by millions of pounds annually, incineration costs for mask disposal and carbon emissions by moving away from the mass use of disposables.

More cost-effective. Reusable half masks provide the most cost-effective respiratory protection option for the public or employers. Cost no longer becomes a barrier to proper high-grade protection.

Can help schools and businesses stay open safely. The widespread use and adoption of reusable half masks could help reduce workplace transmission and outbreaks while ending the need for future closures and lockdowns. Providing employees with high-grade protection like elastomeric respirators can keep them safe while working near each other and save countless jobs.

Prevent future pandemics. By putting elastomeric respirators into widespread use around the world, we can stop the transmission of dangerous viruses and prevent future pandemics from occurring.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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