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Face masks and respiratory protective equipment

Face masks are widely used in construction work to protect workers against inhalation of hazardous dusts, like silica dust and other pollutants and chemicals. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the use of face masks has also been useful in reducing transmission of the virus.

Suitable face mask protection

It’s important to note that not all face masks are equal when it comes to protection against inhalation of hazardous dusts. A range of face masks of different types and standards are available, but are not always interchangeable.

A face mask suitable for COVID-19 purposes is not necessarily suitable respiratory protection for construction work. Conversely, not all masks for respiratory protection are suitable for COVID-19 purposes.

Do I need a face mask?

A suitable face mask is required to be worn where it is mandatory by law to do so. For example, a suitable mask for protection against inhalation of silica dust when working with engineered stone will be required under most instances. A face covering is currently required under Stage 3 COVID-19 restrictions in certain parts of Victoria to assist in reducing transmission of the virus.

If wearing of a face mask is not strictly specified by law, the decision needs to be made as to whether one is needed for a specific task, and the type of mask needs to be worn, on the basis of a risk assessment.

This process requires gathering information about the nature of the hazard, the task to be performed and the most effective ways to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety, so far as reasonably practicable.

If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk, it must be reduced as far as is reasonably practicable and in accordance with the hierarchy of control measures prescribed in workplace health and safety legislation.

In the case of hazardous airborne substances this means applying the most effective means of reducing the amount of hazardous substance in the air before considering the need for personal protective equipment, such as a face mask.

Ultimately, a combination of control measures may be required, as well as personal protective equipment, but the important thing to remember is that other means of protection must be carefully considered in the first instance and that using a face mask on its own may not protect the worker or meet the requirements of health and safety laws.

This is because personal protective equipment is the least reliable form of protection against airborne hazards and is usually supplementary to other, more effective control measures.

It is also important to remember that while using a suitable face mask provides protection for one aspect of an identified risk, and may give a perception of being safe, it does not diminish the need to continue to comply with other control measures that have been put in in place.

Selecting an appropriate face mask

Face masks are only effective if they are properly selected for the hazard that the mask is meant to protect from and are correctly worn at all times.

There are generally two common types of face masks used: face masks used to provide protection against inhalation of hazardous substances; and surgical type/cloth type face masks used to protect against transmission of COVID-19. Common versions of these masks are shown below:

Image source: Safe Work Australia

Face masks for respiratory protection

There are many types of face masks used for respiratory protection, ranging from single-use disposable masks to filtered half-face respirators and full-face respirators. These masks are often referred to as ‘respirators’ or ‘respiratory protective equipment’ (RPE).

Unlike surgical/cloth masks, RPE can protect the wearer against inhalation of hazardous substances provided they are correctly fitted and worn. Some may also be used to reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

In Australia, face masks used for respiratory protection are classified and marked as P1, P2 or P3, in accordance with AS/NZS 1716:2012 Respiratory protective devices. The higher the P-number the greater the filtering efficiency and level of respiratory protection of the mask.

P1 RPE are used to protect against mechanically generated dust and particles – e.g. particles formed by crushing, grinding, drilling, sanding and cutting.

P2 are used for protection against mechanically generated dust and particles as well as thermally generated particles such as smoke and metal fumes.

P3 are full face piece masks that protect against highly toxic or highly irritant substances.
There is also RPE from other countries in the Australian market, such as the N95 face masks from the US, FFP2 face masks from Europe and KN95 from China.

Choose approved face masks only

When selecting RPE, preference should be given to P-class RPE wherever possible.

However, RPE approved under similar international standards may be accepted if P-class RPE is not available. Currently, only the N95 (US) or FFP2 (Europe) respirators are acceptable as equivalents to P2 RPE in Australia.

With the demand for face masks created by the COVID-19 pandemic a number of fakes and sub-standard products have also become available.

Before purchasing a mask for respiratory protection, the purchaser should verify that the mask is approved at the source country and meets the requirements of NIOSH-42CFR84 (for N95 masks) or EN 149-2001 (for FFP2 masks).

RPE face masks that do not have exhalation valves may also be used to reduce transmission of COVID-19.

Surgical and cloth face masks

Surgical type and cloth face masks, such as those worn by the general public to reduce transmission of COVID-19, reduce the ejection of infected droplets into the air when the wearer speaks, coughs, sneezes or laughs. This reduces the chance of passing the virus on to others but gives no real protection against the inhalation of infected droplets, dusts or other hazardous substances. As such, surgical type and cloth face masks are not suitable for use as RPE in construction workplace settings.

Correct use of face masks and RPE

Workers need to be given appropriate information, instruction and training on how to effectively fit, use and maintain RPE.

It is very easy for face masks and RPE to lose their effectiveness if they do not fit or are not worn and maintained correctly.

Employers must provide information, instruction and training to employees about:

  • when face masks or RPE are to be worn
  • how to put on and wear face masks or RPE correctly to ensure they are effective
  • how to remove face masks or RPE safely, including changing masks during shifts
  • how to safely store and wash reusable face masks and RPE or dispose of single-use masks.

Employees have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, which includes following the information, instruction and training provided on how to correctly wear and maintain their face mask.

Further information on face masks

Your local state or territory workplace health and safety authority may have specific requirements in relation to face masks and RPE on their respective websites:

To find out more, contact HIA’s Building Services team.

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