With respiratory protection becoming increasingly difficult to source, and healthcare providers being told to reuse or clean their N95s, there are options to get over the hump. The FDA issued Emergency Use Authorizations (EAUs) for cleaning procedures and the use of non-NIOSH approved respiratory protection. The cleaning procedures are through the use of the Battelle Decontamination System that employs vaporized hydrogen peroxide to clean N95 masks for reuse.
Healthcare facilities are to collect contaminated N95 masks for shipment to Battelle. There is a chain of custody procedure to follow, detailed here, and the masks are to be disposed after 20 decontamination cycles. Instructions geared towards healthcare providers can be found here, it is important to note that masks with visible contamination (i.e.: makeup, blood, or bodily fluids) cannot be decontaminated by the Battelle process and will be disposed of.
As N95 stashes are donated to healthcare facilities, it leaves construction workers and other industrial personnel left with less options for their protection. PPE like respirators is always looked at as the last resort, but with OSHA regulations like Table 1 of the construction silica standard, PPE like respirators may be specified for tasks a worker usually conducts. Even so, the hierarchy of controls should be worked through to identify ways to protect workers in the interim while respiratory protection resources are diverted to healthcare facilities and the personnel most exposed to COVID-19.
- For those in industries considered Critical Infrastructure, this does not mean all hands on deck! Consult your local, county, or state shelter in place orders and identify personnel that are critical to your onsite operations. Take into account that schools and child care facilities are closed in many areas, and working parents are taking on more responsibility for child care than usual.
- Utilize administrative controls to minimize the amount of personnel are at a site, operation, office, and other specified areas at a given time. Consider adding more shifts, flexible hours, and other options to work with those who are immunocompromised and can’t be around potentially infected persons at this time, and again, for those working parents who are juggling a lot right now.
- Ensure that workers have the training they need to do their jobs safely while keeping hygiene in mind. Workers may be tasked with new responsibilities based on what is considered critical to your operations. Many facilities may be changing their production to something that supports current needs, like distilleries making hand sanitizer, and industries shifting production of widgets to medical devices and PPE. Just because we are in emergency response mode does not mean the usual best practices for worker communication and training go out the window! Job Safety Analysis, pre-task planning, toolbox talks, tailgate meetings and other connections with the workers are more important than ever. You may need to conduct them differently to maintain at least 6′ of physical distance, but you MUST still communicate – use other pathways like postings, printed handouts, text messages, emails, and videos.
- Take this time to review your emergency and disaster plans. We are living in interesting times where we can conduct a debrief after almost every working day. There’s news like this weekend’s FDA EUAs breaking frequently, as well as shelter in place and other orders changing to meet the demands to flatten the curve of the virus’s impact.
- Take care of yourself. With schedules changing, responsibilities changing and expanding, make sure you’re well fed, hydrated, and rested to be able to take on the work day – wherever and whenever that is.