Demand for respiratory protection soars
Manufacturers adjust to increased need for PPE during COVID-19
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe in early 2020, the demand and desperation for respiratory protection did as well.
N95 respirators became the hottest personal protective equipment (PPE) item in the world, with many organizations donating available reserves to frontline workers.
Minnesota-based manufacturer 3M expects demand for PPE to continue outpacing supply for the next while, according to board chairman and CEO Michael Roman.
“Our products — including respirators, surgical and procedural masks and hand sanitizers — are being used globally in the response to the outbreak. We expect demand for these products to outpace supply for the foreseeable future,” he said in a March press release.
“We have notified our authorized distributors that we are prioritizing orders to help serve our base business — including hospitals — due to high global demand.”
In response to global demands, 3M has doubled its global annual output to 1.1 billion National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved N95 respirators, and will increase that to 2 billion per year within the next year, according to a statement by 3M Canada.
Disposable N95 respirators are easily the most in-demand category of respirators through the pandemic. A properly selected and fitted respirator provides its user protection from airborne particulates — including bioaerosols, said 3M Canada.
Honeywell also added to its production capabilities — adding manufacturing lines to its Rhode Island facility, according to Kristin Ware, respiratory product marketing manager at the company’s offices in Charlotte, N.C.
“We definitely, like everyone, have seen an increase in demand throughout our respiratory products — specifically for our N95 masks,” she said. “There’s just a lot of demand right now from a global standpoint — specifically from the U.S. and Canada. We can’t keep up from a production standpoint with the demand that we’re receiving.”
Those in need of immediate respiratory protection were being referred to half masks known as reusable air-purifying respirators, said Ware, noting elastomeric half masks were another alternative from the disposable N95s.
“We’re just doing what we can at Honeywell to help everybody that we can on the front lines of this,” she said.
Dentec’s U.S. manufacturing facilities also ramped up production, moving to 24-hour moulding, said Claudio Dente, president of Dentec Safety Specialists in Newmarket, Ont.
“This is an extraordinary time,” he said. “The demand for respiratory protection is unprecedented… We have some supply issues with raw materials, because the volumes that are being directed to us are unprecedented.”
“And so, we are working with our supply chain and logistics to secure raw materials. We have also ramped up our production; we’ve gone to 24-hour moulding,” said Dente. “We’re taking measures, we’re doing everything that we possibly can to accelerate the delivery and the manufacturing of our product.”
N95s weren’t the only facial protection in demand through the early days of the pandemic.
As all disposable offerings began being diverted to health-care workers, Dentec looked to provide alternative solutions for industrial workers, said Dente.
The company’s Comfort Air series of respirators provides comfort alongside the ability to manipulate the filter cartridges in four different positions for versatility when wearing additional PPE such as grinding shields or welding helmets, he said.
While these types of masks are not disposable, they do require disinfection.
The demand has been “enormous” and includes the health-care market, said Dente.
The 400 series has proved most popular and economical. The 100 series is silicone and more comfortable, but is also more expensive, he said.
The masks feature filter material that is mounted in protective housing, allowing for in-field fit checks, said Dente. The rubber mask also contains an exhalation valve which allows for quick test procedures that ensure the seal is fit for duty.
“Each and every time you take the mask off, you can conduct a quick fit check. You can’t do that with a disposable,” he said.
In April, Health Canada warned that fraudulent or unauthorized N95 respirators were being sold with more frequency.
Counterfeit producers shift quickly to begin producing goods that suddenly come into high demand, said Lorne Lipkus, founding partner with Kestenberg Siegal Lipkus in Toronto.
“This is the type of situation that counterfeiters thrive on,” he said. “We are dealing with criminals who are trying to fool the unsuspecting consumer and businessperson into buying something they think came from the authorized source and made in accordance with proper specifications.”
Easy “tells” are spelling or grammatical errors, improper packaging, and lack of common information or copyright notices, said Lipkus.
“If it’s too good to be true, your antennas should be up, because it may very well not be true.”
A thorough investigation verifying the supply chain is advised before purchasing, he said. “Know who you’re dealing with.”
For example, if a company is advertising N95 respirators from 3M, then 3M should be able to verify if that company is a credible supplier, said Lipkus.
‘Comfort is king’
Facemasks need to fit properly and provide comfort in order to maximize effectiveness, said Dente, especially in situations where the user needs to wear it for several hours at a time.
“The critical part of wearing a respirator that people don’t appreciate — is comfort is king,” he said. “You’re interfering with your ability to breathe because… you have to create a vacuum to purify the air. You breathe in, and it pulls the air through the cartridge or filter and it purifies the air.”
“The critical thing of a wearing a respirator is getting the right fit and trying to get the one that’s most comfortable.”
Comfort, durability and overall protection drive decisions around choosing respirators, said Ware.
“We make sure that all of our masks meet NIOSH standards and are offering the protection that we claim,” she said. “And then from a comfort standpoint, we want to make sure that whoever is wearing our mask, whether it be someone in health care with a focus on COVID right now, to our industrial end users, which we primarily would sell to outside of this pandemic — that they’re comfortable wearing the mask.”
“Some of these people are wearing these masks for an entire eight-hour shift or longer, so we want to make sure that they fit comfortably.”
Built out of medical-grade silicone, Honeywell’s 7700 half mask “is very flexible and soft on the face,” said Ware.
Disposable respirators usually have a soft-cushion inner lining and foam and are also moisture resistant, she added.
“Comfort is a big thing for us; it’s one of the things that we focus on because that’s how you get people to want to stay with your brand and stay with your product.”