N95 Respirators

OSHA Guidance on the Respirator Shortage

OSHA Guidance on the Respirator Shortage


by Katie Palmer       11/10/2020

OSHA N95 respirators

This blog post covers OSHA respirator shortage guidance. Here’s what you will learn by reading:

  • OSHA’s enforcement discretion of the respiratory standard during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • OSHA respirator shortage guidance
  • Extended use of respirators
  • Reuse of respirators
  • Use of expired respirators
  • Use of respirators not approved by NIOSH
  • Why surgical masks and face shields can’t replace respirators
  • What to do if you can only find respirators with exhalation valves

Global Shortage of Respirators

Due to COVID-19, more employees than ever wear respirators. It doesn’t help that everyday citizens also purchase respirators. Ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a shortage of respirators.

The President directed the Secretary of Labor to “consider all appropriate and necessary steps to increase the availability of respirators.”

Firstly, make a good faith effort to have enough respirators.

Your practice should be actively trying to have enough respirators for your employees to change their respirator after each patient. 

If you truly can’t get your hands on enough respirators, make sure you’re documenting your processes. OSHA Officers will want to see it to ensure you made a good faith effort. If the OSHA Officer calls your respirator supplier and they have enough on hand, your practice is in trouble. 

Depending on which state you live in, you can use KN95s instead of N95s. KN95s are typically less competitive and in less demand. However, some states are not permitted to use KN95s. Oregon OSHA, for example, does not allow practices to use KN95s.

How will OSHA exercise enforcement discretion?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces the respiratory protection standard. Although OSHA is allowing some flexibility throughout the pandemic, your practice could still be fined.

Here’s what OSHA will consider if your practice is noncompliant. They will look at if the employer:

  • Made a good faith effort to obtain other alternative filtering facepiece respirators, reusable elastomeric respirators, or powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) appropriate to protect workers against COVID-19
  • Monitored their supply of N95s and prioritized their use following the CDC’s guidance
  • Used surgical masks or face shields as interim protection (surgical masks aren’t respirators and don’t provide protection during aerosol-generating procedures)
  • Implemented other measures, such as engineering controls, work practices, or administrative controls, that reduce the need for respiratory protection

What is the OSHA respirator shortage guidance?

Next, we will be looking at OSHA’s guidance for the shortage of N95 respirators

First, make sure you maintain your practice’s written respiratory protection program (RPP). And if you don’t have one yet, creating one needs to be your first priority. If you need guidance on your written RPP, check out this webinar by Smart Training’s Vice President of Healthcare, Lee Slaton.

Next, implement other controls to make up for the lack of respirators. Try to limit the need for respirators. Respirators are personal protective equipment (PPE), which is the least effective form of protection. Here is OSHA’s hierarchy of controls, in order from most effective to least effective: 

  • Elimination: physically remove the hazard
  • Substitution: replace the hazard
  • Engineering controls: isolate people from the hazard
  • Administrative controls: change the way people work
  • PPE: protect the worker with PPE

OSHA: Employees can extend the use of or reuse respirators

OSHA writes that due to the pandemic, “the same worker is permitted to extend use of or reuse the respirator, as long as the respirator maintains its structural and functional integrity and the filter material is not physically damaged, soiled, or contaminated.”

OSHA writes that employers must “address in their written RPPs the circumstances under which a disposable respirator will be considered contaminated and not available for extended use or reuse.”

Extended use or reuse: which is better?

According to OSHA, extended use should be prioritized over reuse. This is because there is a contact transmission risk that comes with donning and doffing a respirator during reuse. Similarly, the CDC writes, “Extended use is favored over reuse because it is expected to involve less touching of the respirator and therefore less risk of contact transmission.”

Extended use should also be used instead of reuse when employees are performing aerosol-generating procedures. 

What is extended use of respirators?

Extended use is when an employee wears the same respirator with different patients. The CDC writes, “Extended use has been recommended as an option for conserving respirators during previous respiratory pathogen outbreaks and pandemics.”

Usually, employees should remove their respirator after every patient. But with extended use, the employee would keep the respirator on to treat another patient.

However, according to the CDC, extended use is best suited when an employee is treating multiple patients with COVID-19 back-to-back. Wearing the respirator in the presence of a COVID-19 patient means the respirator is potentially infectious. Employees should change their respirators when going to treat a patient that isn’t COVID-19 positive. 

Also, respirators should be taken off in certain circumstances, such as when the employee needs to go to the bathroom.

What is reuse of respirators?

Reuse is when an employee uses the same respirator for different patients, but instead of keeping it on, the employee takes it off and doffs it between patients. The respirator is stored between the patients. But the respirator should be clearly labeled so the same employee wears the respirator again.

Smart Training’s Vice President of Healthcare, Lee Slaton, describes how to combine extended use and reuse of respirators:

  • Obtain enough respirators for each respirator user to have one respirator for each working day.
  • For example, one user will wear one respirator for the entire day (for example, on Monday). 
  • At the end of the day Monday, the user doffs the respirator and places it in a paper sack labeled with their name and day of the week, and stores it. 
  • Users do the same thing with their respirators each day of the week.
  • This way, there are 6 days in between using the respirator, giving the COVID-19 particles time to die. 

Unless the respirator manufacturer states otherwise, each respirator may be reused up to 5 times before it is replaced. 

OSHA writes, “When respirators are being reused, employers should pay particular attention to workers’ proper storage of the filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs) in between periods of reuse.”

Here is some guidance from OSHA on reusing respirators: 

  • Employees need to perform a user seal check every time they put on (don) a respirator
  • If a respirator can’t pass the user seal check, employees can’t use that respirator
  • Employers need to train workers to help them understand when a respirator should be discarded
  • Employees need to don/doff respirators correctly to reuse them safely
  • Employers need to train workers in how to don/doff respirators

Respirators obviously contaminated with blood, respiratory or nasal secretions or other bodily fluids should be discarded immediately.

A respirator worn during treatment of a suspected COVID patient should be disposed of and not reused.

What if my only option is expired respirators?

First, in order to use expired respirators, employers need to have demonstrated good faith efforts to use alternative solutions to protect employees. 

So you demonstrated good faith efforts already, but all you could get your hands on is expired respirators. Here are OSHA’s rules relating to expired respirators. Employers should:

  • Only use previously NIOSH-certified expired N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs) 
  • Notify workers that they are using expired N95s
  • Not co-mingle products that are past expired with items that are within their shelf life
  • Visually inspect, or train and ensure that workers visually inspect, the N95 FFRs to determine if the structural and functional integrity of the respirator has been compromised
  • Seek assistance from the respirator manufacturer or independent lab regarding testing of those stored respirators prior to use

Note: Extended use and reuse are preferred over using expired respirators.

What if I can’t find NIOSH-approved respirators?

N95 respirators are in high demand, since they are primarily what dental offices use. But you can legally use KN95 respirators during the COVID-19 pandemic and still remain OSHA compliant. 

As recently as October 15, 2020, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) reissued the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). This EUA allows healthcare practices to purchase KN95 respirators. KN95 respirators are similar to N95 respirators, but they are manufactured in China.

Under normal circumstances, respirators must be approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH-certified respirators are one of the mandatory aspects of the OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Program. KN95 respirators are not NIOSH-certified, but they are accepted due to the FDA’s EUA. For a list of respirators that are not NIOSH-approved, but the FDA is allowing under the EUA, check out the FDA’s Appendix A. 

However, the Center for Disease Controls (CDC) writes, “As N95 respirator availability returns to normal, healthcare facilities should promptly resume conventional practices.” Similarly, although the FDA says using respirators not approved by NIOSH is okay, OSHA says to try your best to provide NIOSH-approved respirators. They don’t have to be N95 respirators. Here’s a list of NIOSH-approved respirators.

This EUA also allows healthcare practices to use NIOSH-approved respirators that are expired. But neither the FDA nor OSHA is allowing respirators that aren’t NIOSH-approved to be used past their expiration dates.

However, be aware of your state’s compliance laws. Again, Oregon OSHA, for example, does not allow practices to use KN95s.

Can surgical masks or face shields replace respirators?

No, surgical masks cannot replace respirators. Respirators filter the air the user breathes in, while surgical masks don’t. Surgical masks can protect the wearer from splashes and sprays, but not the aerosols that spread COVID-19.

Similarly, face shields are not respirators, and can’t replace respirators. 

Can surgical masks be used to extend the life of a respirator?

Wearing a surgical mask over the top of a respirator to extend the life of the respirator is not NIOSH approved. Plus, wearing a surgical mask over a respirator makes it much more challenging for your employees to breathe. 

What about a respirator with exhalation valves?

Some respirators have exhalation valves. Although they will still protect the wearer, they won’t protect the wearer from spreading it to others. 

Smart Training’s Lee Slaton suggests not wearing respirators with exhalation valves in his webinar. You can read more about why respirators with exhalation valves aren’t effective in dental and healthcare settings.

Are your employees using respirators?

If any of your employees are using respirators, your practice needs an OSHA Respiratory Protection Program. Smart Training’s Platinum+ Dental SolutionDental Essentials, and Complete Medical Compliance feature this OSHA Written Program. 

The initial set up time for your respiratory protection program is about 15-20 minutes. Check out our blog to learn more about setting up your program on our learning software. Our software makes creating your Respiratory Protection Program painless and simple.

Request a demonstration if you have none of the above plans and still want help meeting the OSHA respiratory protection standard.

Reaching OSHA compliance has never been easier than with Smart Training. 

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