OSHA’s most recent guidances on use of facemasks at work expands enforcement of N-95 respirator requirements to all industries, bringing it in line with guidelines issued recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
OSHA expands enforcement discretion to allow for the extended use and reuse of respirators, and in some circumstances the use of respirators that have “expired” or are older than their recommended shelf lives.
OSHA’s two guidances are, however, time-limited to the current public health crisis. In addition, employers are expected to continue manage their respiratory protection programs in accordance with the OSHA standard for filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs).
The first OSHA guidance gives employers relief to extend the use of respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and to permit their reuse.
The second guidance allows employers to use respirators approved by another country, when respirators approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health are not available.
Regarding extended use and reuse of N95 FFRs with an expired shelf life, employers may use only previously NIOSH-certified expired N95 FFRs. Employers are expected to “visually inspect, or ensure that workers visually inspect, the N95 FFRs to determine if the structural and functional integrity of the respirator has been compromised.”
OSHA points out that over time some components such as the straps, nose bridge and nose foam material may degrade, which can affect the quality of the fit and seal.
OSHA’s second memo permits use of FFRs and air- purifying elastomeric respirators certified under certain standards of other countries, or previously certified under the other countries’ standards, but are beyond their recommended shelf life.
(Allowed only if non-expired equipment certified under other countries’ standards is not available.)
Employers should reassess their engineering controls, work practices and administrative controls to identify changes to decrease the need for N95 FFRs.
OSHA does not explain in the memorandum how this assessment differs from an employer’s previous obligations to implement all feasible engineering and work- practice controls before using respirators. However, OSHA states that in “some instances, an employer may also consider taking steps to temporarily suspend certain non-essential operations.”
If respiratory protection is needed, employers should consider alternatives that offer equal or greater protection compared to an N95 FFR.
OSHA does not address potential shortages of these respirators or the fact that because these other NIOSH-approved respirators also may be appropriate for use in healthcare settings, they are likely to be in short supply.
Cressinda Schlag, an attorney with the Jackson Lewis law firm, says OSHA also gives employers more workarounds to respirator supply shortages.
- Allowing workers to extend use of or reuse N95 FFRs, provided that the mask is used by only one worker, is not contaminated or damaged, and maintains structural and functional integrity.
- Permitting employers to use N95 FFRs that have exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended shelf life, including surgical N95s, in some situations where N95s are not readily available.
- To the extent respiratory protection is required and N95 FFRs would normally be used but are unavailable, employers are permitted to consider alternative classes of respirators so long as they provide equal or greater protection to an N95 FFR.