Innovations of Reusable Respirators for Healthcare and EMS
One small silver glimmer in this global pandemic is that it has spurred innovation in personal protective equipment. This has been particularly pronounced with respiratory protection. N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFR) became what the public saw as the gold standard for respiratory protection when, in fact, they have several limitations. Disposable N95s are not able to be consistently and effectively reused, they are very uncomfortable for some users, and the supply chain has, at times, been incredibly strained. This, along with government support, led experts to work to account for these limitations.
Researchers have now developed several novel ways of disinfecting FFRs while maintaining their integrity, which some users did adopt. This still meant only a few uses and did nothing for comfort. Several users simply switched to reusable products that were readily available. As an example of this, some emergency services and healthcare providers moved away from the use of disposable N95 respirators to more available reusable elastomeric half mask respirators (EHMR). Notably, FDNY made this switch. A benefit of a change to EHMRs is that they can be quantitatively fit tested without damaging the mask, so you can use your personal respirator for both testing and out in the field. They can be cleaned and reused again and again which makes them an eco-friendlier option. A challenge with EHMRs for some uses was that they have an exhalation valve, which allows unfiltered exhaled breath from the respirator wearer to exit the mask. This too was advanced. There are now multiple options for EHMRs with no exhalation valve. EHMRs respirators have been used in industry for many years and can offer far superior protection to N95s. They can be used repeatedly, and still have the benefit of a wearer using their personal respirator that has been tested to fit them.
This move is a vast improvement, but there is a level of simplicity that some users feel is lost with a move from N95 FFRs to EHMR. EHMRs can be cumbersome and clunky, and they may appear severe in patient care settings. Also, a simple removal of the exhalation valve could increase breathing resistance or wearer comfort. So still other researchers worked on a better seal and longer lasting material with the simplistic use of an N95 and designed without an exhalation valve. This research came to fruition just this month, and there are now NIOSH approved reusable N95 elastomeric respirators. They are one solid piece (including straps), simplifying use, and they filter inhaled and exhaled air through reusable and replaceable puck style N95 filters.
There has likely been more innovation in this market in the last two years than in the previous 10. Development will continue to drive forward as the pandemic continues to challenge conventional thought on respiratory protection. The timing is right to evaluate your respiratory protection program and educate yourself on what is available. Hopefully, this will lead us to better management of the pandemic now, as well as improve preparedness for the future.
If you need assistance with your respirator fit testing program, OHD is here to help.
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