Bearded Men, Pregnant Women, and Respirators: What Workers Need to Know

Your workers have completed their medical evaluations and have been fit-tested; they know how to don and doff their respirators, how to keep them clean, and when to replace them. But do your workers know how their personal choices can impact safety when they’re wearing a respirator? Or do they just think they know?

Workers may be afraid to ask about some circumstances out of concern that their jobs will be affected by their personal choices—and in some cases, employers may be concerned about civil rights violations and discrimination claims, for example, when a worker’s beard is a religious requirement. But you can counter any misinformation they may have heard with facts and new research.

Bearded Men

Some employers have a strict and simple “clean-shaven” policy for workers wearing respirators with tight-fitting facemasks, because a beard can interfere with the protective seal between a worker’s respirator and his skin. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t require workers who wear respirators to be clean-shaven. Instead, in several letters of interpretation, OSHA simply requires that a man’s beard not encroach upon the respirator’s seal or interfere with valve function. So a man wearing a beard that is grown either wholly outside the respirator seal area, or wholly inside it (provided it is not so bulky as to interfere with valve function) should be able to wear the respirator safely.

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There are a couple of cautions:

  • OSHA does not consider it compliant if a worker passes a fit-test with facial hair in the respirator-sealing surface area. Beard growth changes daily, so such tests are considered unreliable.
  • Workers with beards can safely wear powered air-purifying respirators that do not require a tight seal to be effective, but employers are not required to provide the more protective respirator if workplace conditions do not warrant it.

Pregnant Women

Weight loss and weight gain can change the fit of a respirator, and one of the most common causes of weight gain in women is pregnancy. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), there are more than 3 million industrial workers and nearly 5 million nursing staff who wear respirators on the job; if one should become pregnant, does she need to have her respirator refitted during her pregnancy?

According to a new NIOSH study accepted for publication by The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, the answer is “probably not.” Researchers at NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory studied, measured, and fit-tested 30 female volunteers; half were in their second or third trimester of pregnancy, and half were not pregnant. The researchers controlled for age, height, and weight. Participants’ weight, height, and body mass index were checked, as well as 13 head and facial dimensions that can affect respirator fit. The women also underwent fit tests with N95 respirators.

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The result? Researchers determined that the fit-tested model of respirator provided before pregnancy should continue to fit a pregnant worker as long as she follows medical guidelines for healthy weight gain during her pregnancy. The study was small, and NIOSH cautions that a larger study is needed to confirm the results, but unless a pregnant worker gains more weight than is recommended, her respirator should continue to be protective throughout her pregnancy.

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