OHS Canada Magazine

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Face Masks vs. Respirators


What’s the difference between face masks and respirators?

This is a question we get asked quite often during our fit testing at Synergy Employment Services. It is also the cause of great confusion among users of respirators. There are countless manufacturers of face masks and respirators throughout the world, but only approved makes and models are accepted by provincial and national regulatory bodies in Canada.

What is a face mask?

A face mask is a loose-fitting mask that covers the nose and mouth area. They have two ear loops that stretch around the ears to hold the mask in place. Face masks are designed to be used as one-way protection only, only capturing large particles or droplets from the wearer and preventing them from being spread to the environment. They are typically used to prevent the spread of common colds and the flu. Contrary to belief, face masks do not protect the wearer at all. Typically, most face masks do not have any protection factor assigned to them and are not NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health)-approved apparatuses.

What is a respirator?

A respirator is a tight-fitting mask that creates a facial seal. Each respirator, when used properly, will create a facial seal that will provide two-way protection, filtering the air entering and exiting the wearer at a level of efficiency designated by the respirator or filter/cartridge (half-face and full-face). Respirators come in three distinct categories:

  1. Disposable (typically N95 and healthcare uses)
  2. Half-face
  3. Full-face

Disposable Respirators: All disposable respirators will have two straps, a metal nose piece, a safety designation (N95, for example) and a NIOSH approval on them. Disposable respirators are used largely by healthcare workers and those workers who can be exposed to airborne pathogens during their employment (police, fire, paramedic, emergency response etc.). Disposable respirators are single-use and provide a high degree of efficiency when worn properly. To measure the appropriate size, make and model correctly, you must be fit-tested.

Half-Face/Full-Face Respirators: These are non-disposable respirators that all have two sets of straps, a mouth piece and two cartridge/filter pieces and will have a NIOSH approval on them. Half-face respirators will cover the nose and mouth area, whereas full-face respirators will cover the entire face. Both of these respirators will create a facial seal and filter the air entering and exiting the wearer’s airway. A distinct difference between disposable and half/full-face respirators is that in half/full-face respirators, the wearer can change through various filters and cartridges to meet various safety requirements, without having to change the mask entirely. To measure the appropriate size, make and model correctly, you must be fit-tested.

The type of respirator you require will be determined by your employer/school directly.

Kapil Gupta is the president of Synergy Employment Services in Toronto. Synergy has been providing strategic workplace risk-management services since 2003.