Face fit testing and the trouble with stubble

Face fit testing and the trouble with stubble - HSL blog

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
  • beards.

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.

2 thoughts on “Face fit testing and the trouble with stubble”

  1. Hi
    How can you call it face fit testing when all the test consists of is a standard throw away paper mask?
    Then when on site we use a different one as they get dirty when used for a while?
    I have had a beard for 10 years and to be told to have a shave to drill a couple of holes in a wall( I’m an air conditioning engineer) when having a short beard makes no difference to a throw away paper mask that hasn’t been tailored or face fitted to my face?

    1. HSE’s Rhiannon Mogridge replies:

      Hi Mark,

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve got problems with your RPE. You make some excellent points in your comment.

      There are two types of disposable masks: Filtering Facepieces (FFPs) and nuisance dust masks. FFPs have markings on them (including the CE mark, followed by a 3 or 4-digit number), and are genuine RPE which can protect you. Nuisance dust masks, on the other hand, typically have no markings and are of no use to anyone; you’d get more benefit from painting one a bright colour and wearing it as a party hat.
      If the mask you’ve been given for your job is a nuisance dust mask, then you’re right: there’s no point in fit testing, as the mask won’t work anyway. Your employer is required by law to provide you with adequate, suitable, CE marked RPE when necessary.

      If, however, your disposable mask is a filtering facepiece (CE mark and all), then fit testing is crucial. FFPs may be cheap and simple, but they are the hardest type of mask to put on right, so fit testing is particularly important. But as you’ve pointed out, a fit test is on a specific model of mask; if you need to wear a tight-fitting mask for work, it MUST be the same model and size as the one you were fit tested with. Once again, your employer has a responsibility to provide this. (Note: it doesn’t need to be the same mask, just the same model and size.)

      Imposing a clean-shaven policy on an existing workforce is difficult; of course people want the freedom to choose their own style of beard! Personally, I’d recommend that employers and employees talk to each other about it. As discussed in the blog post above, there are alternative type of RPE that work with beards, although they may not always be practicable. The research we’ve carried out (HSE’s report RR1052) demonstrates that stubble does make the fit worse for FFPs (although of course this will only be the case if the fit is reasonable to start with – which is determined during the fit test).

      I hope you’re able to find a practicable solution. Please feel free to contact us for advice – we’re here to help.

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