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Beard It All Before

25th May 2020

What’s the risk of beards and respirators? Does a beard seriously compromise the functionality of a mask?

We know respirator face masks have long been a part of working safely.  Masks in general are also becoming a part of living safely as we adjust to COVID-19 management.  What happens when guys choose to have a beard, but need to wear a mask?  How well do beards and respirators mix?

The Usual Practice

Traditionally from an occupational health and safety perspective, beards and respirator face masks have been a hard “no” for many organizations, unless a suitable full face mask is available and appropriate for the nature of the work.

Beards have also come under scrutiny for their potential to harbor bacteria, this McGill University article touches on some of those concerns.

For many tasks, a full face mask just isn’t practical though.  A clean shaven face is often the requirement for the workplace.

Alternatives

While some men may wish to find alternatives to compromise and keep their facial hair, a compromise in the masks seal can compromise their health.

I have suggested to some clients that they get creative and experiment with versions of facial hair that allow creativity, however it’s key to fit test, and ensure that the facial hair does not compromise the functionality when considering a beard and respirator.

The CDC has some suggestions in this article for certain types of beards and other facial hair that may reduce risk of compromising the functionality of a respirator.

Face It: Fit Matters

We know that how well a mask fits impacts how safe a worker is.  So fit matters, but how much?   Recently, and locally, research at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby set out in April this year to explore the same topic, and question.

Their paper “The efficacy of breathing apparatus of various mask design when worn with facial hair” has just been released.

Exactly how much would facial hair compromise the functionality of a respirator?  The research focused on three key aims:

  • To quantitatively measure the fit of selected respirator designs on a number of volunteers with and without facial hair.
  • To determine and describe if length of facial hair impacts the design, function, and desired outcome of various respirator designs
  • To determine and describe if facial size and shape impact the design, function, and desired outcome of various respirator designs

Testing was performed using the TSI and PortaCount® Pro+ Respirator Fit Tester 8038 and the CSA Z94.4-2011 standard.

The Results are Hair

The answer is yes and no.  They looked at a wide range of masks, from N95’s up to full face cowls and the relationship between facial hair, beards, and respirators.

  • Moldex N95 half mask: Fit Factor 100 calculated at < 99% efficiency
  • Moldex 7800 half mask: Fit Factor 100
  • Avon C-50 full face: Fit Factor 500
  • Moldex 9000 full face: Fit Factor 500
  • MSA Ultra Elite full face: Fit Factor 1000
  • Cam Lock Fast Mask full face Filter: Fit Factor 1000
  • Cam Lock Fast Mask full face SCBA: Fit Factor 1000
  • Cam Lock Fast Cowl full face Filter: Fit Factor 1000
  • Cam Lock Fast Cowl full face SCBA: Fit Factor 1000

 

Pass/Fail Data

As you can see in Table 1. below, generally bearded participants did not fare as well as clean shaven participants.

As the mask type moved from simpler fitting masks such as the N95, to more elaborate and better fitting full face masks such as the Fast Cowl SCBA, the pass rate between bearded, and clean shaven participants became similar.

Table 1. Overall pass fail rate of all participants and all mask models

Overall Pass / Fail
Bearded Clean Shaven
PASS TOTAL % PASS TOTAL %
N95 16 47 34% 20 46 43%
7800 14 22 64% 29 33 88%
9000 6 22 27% 27 34 79%
C-50 30 48 63% 46 47 98%
Ultra Elite 36 49 73% 45 47 96%
Fast Mask Full 45 48 94% 45 47 96%
Fast Mask SCBA 43 44 98% 46 47 98%
Fast Cowl Full 44 49 90% 46 47 98%
Fast Cowl SCBA 47 48 98% 44 45 98%

In Summary

Does a beard seriously compromise the functionality of a respirator?

Generally speaking, yes.  Clean shaven in this research generally showed better pass rates.  However with some of the full face masks, the difference in pass rates was minimal or equal in relation to the beards and respirators.

Research Says

Here’s the summary of the researches findings.

“Masks that are designed for use with SCBA performed significantly better with facial hair than the full face and half mask design.

The Fast Cowl design was a little impacted when worn with a large turban, and minimizing the size of the turban would likely address this problem.

The Fast Mask likely would have had no issues with face shape or head size if we had a larger size available like we did with the Cowl design.

The inflation system for securing the mask to the participant appears to perform the best of all designs we tested and would likely offer protection for all shapes of face and facial hair length we feel.

Although the pass rate is higher without facial hair in the half masks and full-face masks, the presence of facial hair does not necessarily render the mask ineffective for use with facial hair.

Further testing should be done under conditions that mimic working conditions to determine if sweat has an effect. Repeat testing over a series of days would also be useful to determine how often a pass is obtained when the same person retests.

Lastly, the N95 design needs further investigation to determine if providing more sizing and models to improve fit would change the results to favour clean shaven faces or if the same protection is provided regardless of facial hair as observed in this study.”

In Conclusion

This is just one recent study, but it confirms what many organizations have already identified as a risk, that beards and respirators aren’t ideal.  Wearing a mask with facial hair can compromise the masks design, and function impacting its ability to filter atmospheric hazards.

In short, it is still reasonable and appropriate for a workplace to request a clean shaven face to reduce risk of compromising the seal of a respirator face mask.

Care must be taken when selecting a respirator.  Where there are cultural, or other barriers to use of a respirator, there are alternatives.

  • Choosing to shorten the length and shape of the facial hair can reduce the risk of compromising the functionality of a respirator
  • Selecting a full face mask may also reduce risk of facial hair compromising the seal of the mask, and allow work to be completed safely

A fit testing program, and regular fit testing is a regulatory (section 8.40 fit tests) requirement for some work tasks requiring a mask, and is needed to ensure good use and application of respirator face masks.

WorkSafe BC have also recently published guidance on the selection and use of COVID-19 related masks.

Thanks to Sherri Ferguson and her team at SFU for sharing the research.  If you’re interested in the full report please contact:

Sherri Ferguson MSc.
Director | Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit

Faculty of Science

sferguson@sfu.ca


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