It’s no secret that healthcare workers have faced a terrifying shortage of vital supplies during the COVID-19 crisis. Consequently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued new temporary guidance regarding the enforcement of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard, effective March 14, until further notice.
The new temporary guidance was instituted to ensure healthcare workers have full access to necessary N95 respiratory protection in anticipation of shortages.
OSHA is currently recommending that employers provide healthcare workers who come in direct contact with COVID-19 patients or those suspected to have the virus with other respirators that offer equal or greater protection. This includes N99 or N100 filtering facepieces, reusable elastomeric respirators with adequate filters or cartridges, or powered air purifying respirators.
The temporary enforcement guidance also includes a recommendation that healthcare employers shift from a quantitative fit testing method to a qualitative one. This will preserve the integrity of N95 respirators, which is more important than ever right now.
Quantitative vs. Qualitative Fit-Testing
As noted above, the OSHA temporary guidance encourages healthcare employers to use a qualitative fit-testing method, instead of the standard quantitative approach.
A pass/fail test, qualitative fit testing relies on the wearer’s sense of taste or smell, or their reaction to an irritant to spot leakage. However, if leakage is detected, the actual amount is not measured. Four qualitative fit test methods are approved by OSHA, including:
- Isoamyl acetate, which omits a banana-like smell
- Saccharin, which leaves a sweet taste in the mouth
- Bitrex, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth
- Irritant smoke, which can cause coughing
On the contrary, quantitative fit testing measures the actual amount of leakage from the respirator. Instead of relying on the wearer’s sense of taste, smell, or irritation, a probe is attached to respirators that is connected to a machine by a hose. Three quantitative fit test methods are approved by OSHA, including:
- Generated aerosol
- Ambient aerosol
- Controlled Negative Pressure
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