On March 19, 2020, the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) put out a fact sheet regarding respiratory protection for care workers. These care workers and care givers have ongoing exposure to the Corona Virus COVID-19. Specifically, care takers at high risk include nursing home care givers, rest home employees, as well as long-term care facilities.
L&I fact sheet for COVID-19 protection
In the fact sheet, L&I encourages facilities to group together patients suffering from COVID-19. That way, they can limit the number of employees that may have exposure to the virus. According to L&I, workers who come within 6 feet of COVID-19 patients can be at a high risk for contracting the virus. As a result, L&I recommends that employers assess situations for proper use of surgical masks or N95 respirators.
Surgical masks are cloth masks that protect the people who wear them. They provide protection from large droplets and splatters from coughs, sneezes and breathing. They do not protect against fine droplets. N95 respirators are the minimum respirator preferred to protect workers from air contamination. However, L&I lists a number of other options that offer even greater protection. These options include N99-100, R95-100, P95-100, and other types of purifying respirators.
Work injury, occupational disease and N95 respirators
Employers might ask employees to voluntarily use N95 respirators even if they have low risk of exposure. In areas and facilities that require workers to use N95 respirators, employers must first have a written respiratory protection program and designate a program administrator. On top, they must provide appropriate respirators such as N95 respirators, powered air purifying respirators, or elastomeric respirators.
If you have to wear N95 respirator at work, know that your employer has to ensure you are medically cleared to use it. Your employer must also fit-test the equipment, and train you on proper use and maintenance. Workers who use N95 respirators and other tight-fitting respirators are to remain clean shave in areas where it contacts the face. This is to ensure an air-tight seal. Lastly, follow the requirements outlined in WAC 296-842. L&I acknowledges that you may need to reuse N95 respirators considering the shortage of protection equipment.
L&I trying to help healthcare workers with work illness
In the end, I’m glad that L&I is helping healthcare workers by creating fact sheets like this one. However, the fact sheet suggests that the use of N95 (or better) respirators is voluntary. Yet, it should be mandatory. Reading between the lines, it appears that workers coming within 6 feet of COVID-19 patients should be wearing N95 (or other) devices.
L&I is attempting to take steps in the right direction, but there is more work to do to prevent work illnesses and occupational disease. There is certainly a lot we need to learn about COVID-19. We also need to figure out how to effectively care for patients, and how to protect our valuable healthcare workers the best way possible.