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November 23, 2015

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Safety mask testing – a day in the life

By Vincent Jenkins

Following from his first article on why ensuring face masks fit securely is so important, Vincent describes a day in the life of a typical fit-tester and what’s involved.

When organising face-fit testing on site I normally liaise with the site manager or safety rep to set a mutually convenient date and get an idea of the number of subjects to be tested. I stipulate that they must present for the test clean-shaven – this is because facial hair, at any stage of growth, can affect the face seal achieved and thus result in a test fail.

After arriving on site and checking in, standard procedure is to split the test subjects up into groups of a manageable size – usually five or six people per group. The groups are taken one by one to a spacious and well-ventilated room, where I explain the purpose of the test and what it will involve. I will also invite them to discuss the hazards they face on a daily basis. For example, on a recent test of ground workers at a borough council in the north of England, they told me they undertook pre-fabrication work, cutting kerbs and slabs, and some woodworking – of which required powered machinery and thus created a lot of dust.

Once the hazards have been discussed and the subjects understand how the procedure will work, it’s time to get started – at which point you generally find that the ‘come clean-shaven’ request has been liberally interpreted! There are always a few who neglected to reach for the razor that morning, and this usually kicks off a debate as to why it’s necessary.

Generally, I will explain the requirements of the HSE Operational Circular on face-fit testing, emphasising that being clean-shaven means the mask can seal against your face. Ultimately, the answer is simple: either shave, or be prepared to have to use a powered-air respirator instead of a mask. If your employer is prepared to issue you with a powered air unit and provide you the necessary training to use and maintain it, then you can sport facial hair.

After the ‘to beard, or not to beard’ discussion, I ask them to talk me through the mask with which they are currently issued. Generally, I find that the wearers know their mask relatively well and can don it securely. Once they’ve done so, I ask them to do a fit check. This is a way of demonstrating a seal without actually carrying out a full qualitative test. Such a check should be carried out daily for the wearer’s own assurance, and can be used to demonstrate to your employer, or a regulator, that you can fit your mask properly.

I ask the wearer to cup their hand over the exhalation valve and breathe out sharply, checking for air rushing past either their eyes or chin. If so, they should then check visually for gaps between the face and the mask – either by asking a colleague to help, or by looking in a mirror.

The actual fit test requires little effort from the subject other than to follow simple instructions and perform simple tasks for six or seven minutes. I place a loose-fitting hood over the mask-wearer’s head and then spray a bitter solution, in the form of a mist, into the hood. The test is that the subject should not be able to taste the solution, thus proving a tight seal and secure fit of the mask.

In the event of a pass, I fill in the necessary report form (see panel) detailing the events of the test and its outcome. This is then signed by me and the test subject and is valid for 12 months. If the test is failed the reason must be investigated and determined. Perhaps the mask was not donned correctly, or it was not the right shape for the wearer’s face. If not, a different size may fit better.

During my aforementioned visit to the borough council, I tested a total of 50 people across three working days. Of those, no more than 20 passed first time, so that meant re-testing subjects repeatedly – one individual was tested five times over the three days! Even though the majority had a positive fit check at the start, many still needed retests, which proves – as the HSE states in its study – that “a fit check should never be used as a substitute for a fit test”.

I also noted that there were more first-time passes among those wearing a half-mask. This is because initial fit checks on such masks are more accurate, owing to the fact they can be fitted with closable cartridges, which block the air intake and collapse the mask as the wearer inhales. Individual wearers can quickly check themselves, every time they don the mask, that there is a positive seal. Disposable masks certainly have their uses but, in terms of a secure face fit, I don’t think you can be completely confident it has been achieved every time a different mask is worn.

All in all, fit testing is time-consuming but when health reassurance is the outcome, it is undoubtedly worth it. This is one area where that other test of “if it swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck” does not hold true. It might look like a protective mask, and be worn like a protective mask, but if it doesn’t fit properly – well, then it might as well be a duck!

Vincent Jenkins is the key account manager for JSP Ltd

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