Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
For most jobs (except those in health care), using personal protective equipment such as wearing a mask is not likely to be effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (in non-health care settings):
“Adults can shed influenza virus 1 day before symptoms appear and up to 5 days after onset of illness; thus, the selective use of masks (e.g., in proximity to a known symptomatic person) may not effectively limit transmission in the community. Instead, emphasis should be placed on cough etiquette for persons with respiratory symptoms whenever they are in the presence of another person, including at home and at school, work, and other public settings”
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and the United States Health and Human Services (HHS) also state that at this time, there has been little or no evidence that using a mask in the community will be protective or practical once the virus is circulating widely. Health care workers may be required to use appropriate masks when they have close contact with patients.
If you choose to wear a mask, PHAC cautions “members of the public may wish to purchase and use masks for individual protection. They need to follow other infection control measures such as hand washing to avoid a false sense of security.” (From Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the Health Sector http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/cpip-pclcpi/pdf-e/CPIP-2006_e.pdf (section 2.6)) However, masks may have some use if worn by those already infected with the virus in order to prevent them from spreading the germs. (Calgary Health Region)
Not all masks are the same
It is important to know that not all masks “work” the same way. Surgical masks work by keeping the large droplets “in” when released from the wearer through talking, coughing, or sneezing. Essentially, surgical masks can stop large droplets from “going out” into the air. They are not fitted against the face to stop the wearer from inhaling agents.
Respirators, on the other hand, are designed to “keep out” specific agents (particulates, viruses of specific sizes, etc). Respirators are certified and rated for very specific uses. It is essential to use the right respirator for the hazard that is present. For example, currently respirators classified as N95, N99, and N100 are recommended for protection from the avian H5N1 virus, as a minimum, when required.
Please know that surgical masks and respirators are not the same thing. Surgical masks are not respirators and are not certified as such. They do not protect the wearer from inhaling small particles that can remain airborne for long periods of time. For more information is available in OSH Answers about Respiratory Protection Against Infections for Health Care Workers
What can a workplace do?
Since we don’t know exactly how the pandemic virus will spread, general recommendations for most workplaces and schools for infection control include to:
Employers should make sure that tissues (and garbage cans) are available for containing coughs, as well as soap/water or sanitizers for hand washing are available. Communicate the importance of these steps with all staff.
When to wear PPE
At this time, it is thought that in most workplaces, PPE will likely not be effective or practical in containing the spread of the virus.
It will be important to stay current with announcements during the pandemic by agencies such as public health, or your local ministry or department of labour. Recommendations about the use of PPE will likely depend on the agent itself – how fast it spreads, the actual size of the agent, and how much of the agent you need to inhale before becoming ill. If the public health agencies or other governments departments recommend PPE, or if your workplace chooses to use PPE, it will be important to use the right kinds of PPE in the right way.
If PPE measures are required
If using personal protective equipment (PPE) becomes necessary, it is important to use PPE correctly.
Workplaces should first establish control measures to reduce the transmission of the agent which may include:
Should respirators, for example, be required in your workplace, it is essential to establish a complete PPE program which includes respirator fit testing, selection and care. See Table 1 below for a summary of possible protection types.
Table 1: Summary of Possible Influenza Protection Measures
Adapted from: Calgary Health Region. Pandemic Influenza Planning Guide for Businesses (page 24)
Other personal protective equipment and procedures that may be required (currently recommended for health care settings) include
Also, remember it is important to wash your hands after removing any PPE. (Adapted from: Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Interim Guidance for Protection of Persons Involved in U.S. Avian Influenza Outbreak Disease Control and Eradication Activities )
Be sure to follow guidelines for both wearing and removing PPE.