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As Workplace Health Becomes Job No. 1, Respirators Lean High-Tech

Following the latest Centers of Disease Control guidance, mass confusion reigns about the role of mask-wearing.

As summer seasonal activity opens up after a full year in limbo, and as corporate and commercial America take on the challenge of rebooting normalized workplaces as an anchor of economic dynamism in the period known as “learning to live with Covid,” confusion is likely asking for trouble.

The bottom line – mask or no mask, work, play, or anywhere in between – comes down to fresh air flow, which happens naturally outdoors, and may or may not happen mechanically in indoor or otherwise closed in working environments. As firms press “go” on plans to bring some perhaps new modicum of workplace operations up to full strength, it may be that construction job sites offer a template for occupational health and safety in this latest patch of pandemic time.

“As what we call ‘Act 2’ of living-with-Covid gets underway – and particularly as the season brings warmer weather into play – the most important factor we now know about that wasn’t clear when the CDC was giving guidance a year ago is that Covid is an atmospheric virus,” says Dan Carlin, M.D., CEO and founder of JobSiteCare and CEO of WorldClinic, a Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.-base occupational health and safety consultancy. “As capacity restrictions relax and case rates decline, the important go-forward area to focus on is on ventilation, air flow, and indoor air exchange – inside, or in tight working conditions where the air exchange is low – we’d recommend wearing a mask.”

That advice – whether it’s a window installer, a subflooring contractor, a crew member whose job involves ascending 30 floors in a buck hoist, or any other indoor employee – applies to workplaces generally. This McKinsey & Company analysis of PPE industry prospects notes: “Tailwinds and headwinds will continue to have a divergent effect on the $13.5 billion US PPE business for the next several years, both for end-user industries and specific product segments.”

There’s even a mask challenge, an initiative from the Department of Health and Human Services – Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, partnering with The CDC’s – National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Its aim? To develop better designs, materials, and technologies that are more acceptable to wearers and that ensure quantified measures of performance.

Still, who should, who will, and who does wear a mask as personal protection in the days, weeks, and months ahead, as well as when, and where are questions open to intense and material debate, on a personal, workaday, and societal level. The issue’s contentiousness has been prompted in part by the timing of the White House-supported CDC guidance – which advises that fully vaccinated individuals may now go fully-unmasked, both outdoors and indoors.

Many experts contend that the timing is odd, citing three big reasons for worry.

  • As of mid-May, 40% of US citizens – 270 million doses of vaccines – are at least partially vaccinated against Covid’s – meaning that two of every five Americans, including young children for whom safety and efficacy trials continue, remain unvaccinated.
  • While daily infection rates and the number of hospitalizations have declined in the U.S., what many experts and clinicians worry about now is that Covid variants, especially more transmissible and likely more fatal ones raging in India have yet to be fully appreciated as a presence in North America.
  • As more and more businesses – corporate, operational, retail, restaurants, entertainment, and other commercial activity – reopen, bringing large numbers of people out of the relative protection of their homes and back into circulation, many of them in indoor environment, accessed via elevators, etc.

This last consideration is particularly meaningful in occupations – such as construction, where skilled workers are already in crisis-level undersupply nearly everywhere in the country – where there’s a strong correlation between country of origin and heritage of workforce members and a reluctance to vaccinate, for any number of reasons.

Occasion for anxiety about these three X factors centers not only on the public health risks – both to individuals and to groups of people in circulation who may be exposed to Covid infection by unwitting, asymptomatic Covid spreaders, some percentage of whom may or may not have been vaccinated for protection against the disease’s most harmful effects.

What’s more, that anxiety could itself work at odds with public sentiment and consumer confidence at a moment an economy navigating a delicate passage from triage damage-control to normalcy can least afford it, if people – teachers, nurses, check-out clerks, grocers, and other front-line workers – take ill in the weeks and months ahead.

For that reason, societal common sense may work as a more reliable beacon of return-to-normal behavior regarding mask-wearing than any current public health sector proclamation can. At the same time, at least one of the reasons people give as to why they’d rather not mask – even if it reduces their risk of either contracting or unintentionally spreading Covid is comfort. Although N-95s are the standard of construction jobsite performance at filtering contaminants – whether it be silica dust, other airborne particulate matter like asbestos, lead, carbon monoxide, or welding fumes, or aerosolized virus – anyone who’s had to wear one for an extended period of time, especially when it’s hot, has experienced pain enough to make one question as to whether the mask is necessary or worth it.

Technology, in design and comfort as well as in performance, durability, and usability, now figures into choices can make – taking at least some of the sources of resistance to common sense effort to keep oneself and others protected from Covid spread off the table.

For instance, Miami-based Octo Respirator Masks, created a year-plus before many of us heard of the novel coronavirus, and designed for people who work long shifts (8-12 hours) in fields where access to clean breathing air is can be difficult. Once – only about 18 months ago – that specifically applied to workplaces for construction, mining, healthcare, first responders, people living in wildfire or earthquake zones.

Now, especially amid mask-confusion, unknowns about indoor air exchange both where we work and in our means of commuting to our jobs, that means almost all of us.

Here’s where technology and design have changed the game in masks, and why that may matter more than ever as the economy tries to kickstart into high-gear and as infection rates remain a little high for comfort.

Construction workers historically use N95s or P100s, which tend to be disposable or require replacement parts – and involve throwaway filters. That’s problematic environmentally and economically, and it’s difficult to keep up with. The Octo mask tested to – and surpassed – N95 standards. Further, it’s reusable, lasting for regular use for up to a year.

Octo mask developers Natasha Duwin and Tobias Franoszek recognize that performance efficacy is only part of the equation needed for adoption and traction for their respirator device.

“N95s are usually not worn properly,” Natasha Duwin said. “Even healthcare workers misuse N95s, because they need to be fit-tested and they need to train on how to wear them cupping and sealing the face properly, which affects their breathability. But with the Octo mask, there’s minimal learning curve, because the seal fits on the face perfectly and it’s comfortable.”

Duwin notes that the genesis of the Octo technology traces back to a viral epidemic past, the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which in turn led to global standards for workplace air and personal protection safety, the 2009 Breathe Report.

This federal government report called for 28 improvements needed in respirator masks and the Octo Respirator mask is the only one, to date, to meet the report’s 28 improvements requirements.

So, while who, when, and where to wear masks may remain open to contention as local, national and global economies reignite their engines, it’s clear that if common sense prevails, and people choose to wear a mask as they work indoors, technology has improved the comfort and performance of masking options.

What do you think?

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