Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Specialist Rhiannon Mogridge explains how the fit of your face mask can affect your respiratory health and why she’s picky about noses and bothered by beards.
Please don’t take this personally, but I have a problem with your face.
It’s not just you – I have a problem with most people’s faces. They’re all different, you see. Some of them are long and thin, some are bony and angular, some are round and fleshy… and even the most promising faces still have that troublesome thing sticking out the front that we call a nose. Oh, and don’t even get me started on facial hair…
I work with Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE), and particularly masks. The types of masks I deal with can protect your lungs from all sorts of nasty stuff, but – and this is the important bit, so I’ll underline it – they have to seal to your face in order to work properly. Even a tiny leak around the edge will let hazardous air bypass the filter, leaving you exposed to who-knows-what.
We’re all different, so a mask that fits me perfectly won’t necessarily fit you. In my experience, there are three main reasons why a mask fails to fit properly:
- putting it on wrong,
- noses, and
These aren’t the only reasons for a poorly fitting face mask, but they’re the ones I see most often.
Lots of mask-wearers don’t put their mask on correctly. Some mistakes are really obvious: if your mask is dangling around your neck, it’s not doing its job. Other mistakes occur because it can be surprisingly hard to put a mask on properly if you don’t know how. Tying your shoe-laces is easy, but only because you were taught how. The key here is training, even for the simplest types of RPE.
Noses – and other facial features – can also present mask fitting issues. As solutions go, cosmetic surgery is probably a teensy bit excessive for most of us, so we’ll just have to accept that the right mask needs to be chosen for each person. This is one of the reasons why fit testing is crucial.
Fit testing is a way of finding a model of mask that can fit a particular person. There’s more than one way of doing it, but everyone who wears a tight-fitting protective mask should have a fit test for it. It’s also a good opportunity to train people on how to wear their mask, which, as we’ve seen, is vital.
Finally, beards and stubble are a common problem. The mask has to seal to your face, and if there’s hair (even stubble) in the way, it won’t. It’s like trying to seal a cake tin with Velcro® – the air will get in, and the cake will go stale (an unacceptable situation, if you ask me).
Dedicated pogonotrophists (beardy folk) needn’t despair however; there is an alternative that doesn’t involve shaving. Loose-fitting RPE is a type of RPE that doesn’t use masks, and therefore doesn’t have to seal to your face. It usually consists of a blower unit that blows filtered air into a hood, helmet or visor. The constant airflow means that any leakage through gaps in the seal goes outwards, not inwards, keeping you protected.
Loose fitting RPE can be worn with beards, and since it doesn’t have to seal to your face, it doesn’t need to be fit tested. Many people find it more comfortable. That said, loose-fitting RPE is generally more expensive than basic masks, will probably need a higher degree of maintenance and may be unsuitable in some situations. If you’ve got face fit problems because of beards, though, it’s definitely worth a look.
HSE estimates that 12,000 people die each year from occupational respiratory illnesses. RPE isn’t the only answer. In fact, it’s the last line of defence. But if you have RPE that fits you and you wear it right, you really have a much better chance of staying healthy.
Do you have anything to add on the subject of protective face masks, fit testing or respiratory disease prevention? Please add your comment below.