Before the global pandemic, although respiratory protection was acknowledged as imperative in particular hazardous situations, it may be fair to say that the differences between certain types of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) were not much considered by the general population.
However, fast-forward to 2021 and conversations surrounding respirators, airborne hazards and the adequacy of RPE appear to be commonplace. Never so often has the importance of respiratory protection been affirmed and reinforced via news channels, especially when discussing healthcare workers and their occupational COVID-19 risk.
You may have frequently been exposed to images of medical professionals wearing disposable FFP3 masks (generally white cups which soft-seal around the nose and mouth, valve on the front), and possibly less so, elastomeric reusable half mask respirators (i.e., a half mask with filters attached, rubber seal around the nose and mouth, head harness – such as our RP100 Corpro HM1400 product). Both have their advantages, but it is critical to outline their pros and cons to ensure that all are wearing the most appropriate and protective RPE for their situation and environment.
Let’s look at this in more detail…
Firstly, some definitions:
- Adequacy: According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE)1, when we refer to RPE as ‘adequate’, we mean “it is right for the hazard and reduces exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health”.
- Suitability: According to the HSE1, when we refer to RPE as ‘suitable’, we mean “it is right for the wearer, task and environment, such that the wearer can work freely and without additional risks due to the RPE”.
- Fit: When discussing how well a tight-fitting respirator ‘fits’, it means how well the facepiece seals onto the face. If a mask is poorly fitted, the mask is likely to cause air ingress.
- Fit test vs Fit check: Fit testing is different to fit checking. A fit test should be carried out as part of the RPE selection process, before being worn in hazardous environments, to establish the most adequate and suitable RPE for the wearer. This test should be undertaken by an accredited fit tester. A fit check is a procedure that should be performed by the wearer every time they don their RPE, and this confirms whether a seal has been achieved.
- Fit factor: The numerical outcome of a quantitative fit test.
- Total inward leakage: An approximate measure of the leakage of contaminants through a certain respirator’s filter media, face seal and exhalation valve.
- Efficiency: ‘Efficiency’, in a filtration context, often refers to the percentage of particles of a given size that would be stopped and retained by the filter.
- Breathing resistance: The ‘breathing resistance’ of filters refers to the “resistance imposed by filter(s) to the flow of air” and this should be “as low as possible”, according to the EN143:2000 standard.
Firstly, it’s important to note that ‘protection’ is a very broad term, and with respiratory safety equipment we could be referring to a number of things when discussing a mask’s ‘protection’. For instance, one might conclude how ‘protective’ a mask is based on how well-fitting it is, or how efficient the materials and components are, or whether a person is appropriately protected from certain contaminants in a very specific environment.
There are also official standards to detail the expected protection levels that certain RPE should deliver. For example, an assigned protection factor (APF) is a generated number which reflects a level of protection a particular type of respirator can be expected to provide, and according to UK standards, both FFP3 masks and elastomeric half masks with filters have a APF of 102. This means, according to official guidance, wearers may expect the same official ‘protection level’ from both disposable FFP3 masks and reusable half mask respirators.
However, each respirator has different benefits, filtration efficiencies and sizes, and so it isn’t enough to judge protection by an APF. When considering what type of mask to buy, you should look for the following:
- How many sizes does this mask offer? More sizes mean you’re more likely to find a mask which fits you appropriately.
- What is the filtration efficiency? According to EN129:2001, FFP3 filtering face pieces should have a minimum efficiency of 99% and a maximum permitted total inward leakage of 2%. On the other hand, for particulate filters (which would connect to a half mask to protect individuals from COVID-19), EN143:2000 states that P3 filters should be a minimum of 99.95% efficient. You would additionally have to consider the efficacy of the half mask respirator itself in this case. But be aware that some masks are designed to meet the standard, and some go above and beyond.
- Is the mask suitable? Think about your personal circumstances, the exposure level and what you’re trying to combat, and seek professional advice when necessary.
At Semmco, we pride ourselves on the fit and filtration efficiency of our products.
- Our RP100 Corpro half masks come in three sizes which fit over 95% of the population3, and we have received much feedback from accredited fit testers, medical professionals and health and safety officers expressing that our RP100 Corpro HM1400 mask appears to deliver extremely high fit factor levels for a high proportion of people.
- Our RP100 Corpro P3 R filter pairs have a general efficiency of over 99.99% and a viral filtration efficiency (VFE) of over 99.99998%.
So, our particulate filters in combination with a well-fitting RP100 Corpro HM1400 half mask can provide wearers with peace of mind and confidence in their RPE equipment when they need it the most.
Of course, comfort is subjective. But when it comes to wearing a face mask, there are a few things which most people consider to be ‘comfortable’. People generally want their mask to:
- Provide ease-of-breathing
- Provide unobstructed vision
- Deliver a secure but user-friendly fit
- Be lightweight
These factors depend on the design of the mask itself and the preferences and facial features of the wearer, and so there is no definitive formula for creating extremely comfortable RPE. The best mask for an individual may take some time to find and options should be discussed with an accredited fit tester.
Our RP100 Corpro reusable HM1400 half mask has been designed with the comfort of the user in mind, with:
- Exceptionally low breathing resistance for ease-of-breathing
- A low-profile mask and filter position to achieve a wide field of view and better integration with other types of personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Three sizes and made predominantly with TPE (completely latex free)
- The respirator itself and the accompanying filters being lightweight (117g for a large size mask; 125g per RP100 Corpro range P3 R filter pair).
When it comes to cost, there isn’t much competition.
With single-use FFP3 masks now retailing between around £1 and £10 pounds each depending on the brand and its features4, it can soon become an expensive undertaking to wear such a mask, especially if worn every day.
Reusable half mask respirators with their filters, on the other hand, currently retail between around £25 and £504, with the standalone replaceable filters coming in at a fraction of that price. Semmco LPS recommends that the RP100 Corpro HM1400 half mask is fully serviceable for five years and advise a change of filters on the respirator once every three months or until the filters become clogged (i.e., until the filter becomes difficult to breathe through). Therefore, although reusable respirators may cost more in the first instance, it’s clear to see how much more cost-effective they can be in the long-term.
Just to provide an example, based on a medical professional working three shifts in a working week (costs ex VAT):
If you use a FFP3 facepiece –
Assume the mask is a relatively low-cost product at £2. If only one mask worn in a shift, this comes to a total of £6 per week for RPE. Assuming an individual is working 45 weeks per annum, this generates a total yearly cost of £270.
If you use a reusable half mask respirator –
The RP100 CORPRO HM1400 half mask is retailed at £17.30 and it is £8.13 for a pair of RP100 range P3 R filters. Assuming filters are changed once every three months, this generates a total yearly cost of £49.82.
If you increase the price of the FFP3 mask, the number of shifts per week or the number of FFP3 mask changes per day, the disparity between the costs will only grow.
- Cleaning and Decontamination
Clearly, if you’re looking for the easiest solution to cleaning and decontamination, the single-use FFP3 would be for you. You’re able to remove at the end of your day / shift, dispose of in a controlled waste disposal area, and on your next shift you can don a new mask.
With reusable half mask respirators, there has to be more care taken in decontaminating (and cleaning requirements depend on both manufacturer instructions and infection control / health and safety departments). Even if it’s a quick process, this inevitably wouldn’t be as quick as throwing your mask away.
However, there may be a wealth of issues which come with single-wear masks. Not only are there potential problems surrounding fit and fit checking, but increased mask waste can have an extremely negative impact on the planet (see below).
As well as the increasing public conversation around the need for suitable and adequate respiratory protection, there is also a great awareness and concern for the potential detriment that disposed-of, single-use protective equipment can have on the planet5. This includes disposable FFP3 facepieces.
Using a reusable mask significantly reduces the amount of waste generated. They can be effectively decontaminated, serviced when required, and the mask itself can often be used for many years when maintained appropriately and would simply require regular filter changes (as per HSE guidance and manufacturer instructions).
1 HSE, n.d., Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) basics. Available at: https://www.hse.gov.uk/respiratory-protective-equipment/basics.htm#:~:text=This%20means%3A,risks%20due%20to%20the%20RPE. (Accessed: 23rd February 2021).
2 HSE, n.d., UK Standard Assigned Protection Factor 10 (APF 10). Available at: https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/guidance/rpe2.pdf (Accessed: 18th February 2021).
3 Statistic based on global facial anthropometric data.
4 Based on market research conducted in February 2021.
5 BBC News, 2020, Coronavirus: ‘The masks you throw away could end up killing a whale’. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/science-environment-53287940 (Accessed: 17th February 2021).