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Environmental Health & Safety

All Masks Are Not Created Equal

One question that we at EH&S are asked periodically is whether surgical masks (including dental masks, medical procedure masks, isolation masks, and laser masks) and N-95 masks are the same. Although they offer some of the same benefits, the short answer is no.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not classify surgical masks as respirators. N-95s, on the other hand, are classified as respirators. OSHA defines a respirator as a protective facepiece, hood or helmet that is designed to protect the wearer against a variety of harmful airborne agents.

So, what does this distinction mean for you? Surgical masks and N-95 respirators have different purposes, different capabilities, and the requirements for using N-95s are much more stringent.

Surgical masks do not form a tight seal with the wearer’s face. Because they lack a seal, they do not protect the user against inhaling small airborne particles or aerosols. Surgical masks do not, therefore, protect against transmission of illness through inhalation of infectious organisms. Surgical masks are intended to provide a physical barrier to protect the wearer against splashed liquids such as large droplets of blood or other body fluids, and contaminated hands contacting the face. They also protect others against infection transmitted by droplets produced by the wearer coughing or sneezing. Surgical masks must be cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) for sale in the U.S. and are tested for resistance to blood and body fluids.

N-95 masks are designed to form an air-tight seal with the wearer’s face and use a 95% efficiency filter to remove and exclude airborne particulates such as bacteria and viruses, and fine aerosols. In addition, they provide protection against droplets and splashes as well as contact protection. N-95s provide protection for those who must work closely (within 6 feet), or in contact with people who have or may have illnesses transmissible by aerosols or particulates.

It is also important to understand that neither surgical masks nor N-95s are designed to filter out gases or vapors, and cannot be used in oxygen-deficient locations.

Any respirators, including N-95s, must be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for use in the workplace. Before you can be required to wear an N-95 or any other tight-fitting respirator on the job, potential hazards must be assessed to ensure the correct protection is chosen. You must be medically cleared and trained in the proper use, care, and limitations of the respirator(s) you will be using. You must also be fit tested with the specific make and model of any respirator(s) you are going to use to ensure the seal is in fact air tight.

Fit testing must be performed at least annually, and must be repeated if the user experiences any changes in the mask’s fit or if there are any significant changes to facial contours due to weight loss/gain, oral or cosmetic surgery, etc. Tight fitting respirators like N-95s cannot be used by persons with facial hair or other conditions that might interfere with the seal; in such cases, use of a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) might be appropriate.

Respirators must always be used in conjunction with other available interventions such as proper hand hygiene and cough etiquette, and must be selected for compatibility with any other personal protective equipment you will be using. Masks, in combination with eye protection devices, must be worn whenever splashes, spray, splatter or droplets of blood or Other Potentially Infectious Material may be generated. If you are performing work that poses a risk of splash exposures, it is vital that you use some form of eye protection such as goggles or a face shield in addition to the respirator or mask. If you are using a surgical mask, choose one with integral eye protection.

All respirator use at the University must be in full compliance with the U of R Respiratory Protection Program: and OSHA regulations.

The Occupational Safety Unit of the University’s Environmental Health and Safety Department can answer your questions concerning respirators, personal protective equipment and other safety-related topics.

Contact EH&S at (585) 275-3241 or e-mail EH&S Questions.

This page last updated 9/30/2013. Disclaimer.