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Respirators and surgical masks are two types
of personal protective equipment - or PPE
- that are used to protect workers in
healthcare settings. A surgical mask is not a
respirator, and that’s an important
distinction for you and your employer to
understand, so let’s review the significant
differences between a respirator and a
surgical mask.
What is a respirator? A respirator is a type
of personal protective equipment designed
to reduce your exposure to airborne
contaminants. Respirators are available in
different types and sizes, and the respirator
you use must be individually selected to fit
your face and to provide a tight seal. A
proper seal between your face and the
respirator forces inhaled air to be pulled
through the respirator’s filter material, and
not through gaps between your face
and the respirator.
If your supervisor requires you to use a
respirator, it must be NIOSH-certified and
must be used in the context of a
comprehensive respiratory protection
program, according to OSHA’s Respiratory
Protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.134, which
includes but is not limited to medical
evaluation, fit testing, and training elements.
Respirators are used routinely to protect
healthcare workers against airborne
infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis,
anthrax, SARs, and Hantavirus because they
protect against both large and small particles.
What is a Facemask? A facemask is a loose-
fitting, disposable mask that covers your
nose and mouth. Surgical masks, dental
masks, medical procedure masks, isolation
masks and laser masks are all
types of facemasks.
Facemasks help stop large droplets from
being spread by the person wearing them,
whether that person is a patient or a
healthcare worker. Facemasks also keep
splashes or sprays from reaching the mouth
and nose of the person wearing them.
However, facemasks are not designed or
certified to seal tightly against your face or
to prevent the inhalation of
small airborne contaminants.
During inhalation, small airborne
contaminants pass through gaps between the
face and the facemask and the material of
the mask. Remember, facemasks are not
considered respirators and they do not
provide respiratory protection.
Only facemasks that are cleared by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration, the FDA for
short, may be legally marketed in the United
States. The FDA approval signifies that
they have been tested for their ability to
resist splashes of blood
and other body fluids.
To offer protection, both facemasks and
respirators need to be worn correctly and
consistently throughout the time that they
are being used. When used properly,
facemasks and respirators both play an
important role in preventing exposures to
different types of hazards.
If you need the protection of both a
facemask and a respirator, you can use a
surgical N95 respirator. Surgical N95
respirators offer protection from both
airborne and body fluid contaminants and
are approved by both NIOSH and FDA.
During an infectious disease outbreak, such
as SARs or pandemic flu, facemasks and
respirators should be used in conjunction
with other controls and interventions that are
known to prevent the spread of infection.
These include engineering and
administrative controls, such as installing
sneeze guards and permitting teleworking,
and work practices, such as cough etiquette,
hand hygiene, and avoiding large gatherings.
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The Difference Between Respirators and Surgical Masks

1579 Folder Collection
kuoyumei published on May 8, 2014
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