Groups pursue answers for lack of N95 respirators

Issue Date: August 5, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
A shortage of N95 respirators may leave California farmers and ranchers in a bind. State regulations require the respirators to be offered to outside employees when air quality worsens.

What happens when a pandemic and wildfire season collide? The mask and respirator supply runs short—and farmers encounter complications in complying with regulations concerning wildfire smoke.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health adopted an emergency regulation last summer, requiring employers with employees working outdoors to supply N95 masks—also known as filtering face-piece respirators—and encourage their use when exposure to wildfire smoke is reasonably expected.

The regulation specifies that this applies when the air quality index reaches levels of 151 or higher on account of particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or smaller. By way of comparison, a typical human hair measures 50 to 70 microns across.

The N95 respirator is designed to filter out 95% of all airborne particles, and is in high demand among health-care professionals and others because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That has led to severe shortages, according to Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation and chief operating officer of CFBF affiliate Farm Employers Labor Service.

"Outdoor employers, including agricultural employers, find themselves in an impossible position because the N95s are simply unavailable," Little said, noting that CFBF and other organizations signed on to a letter to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health in June, raising the issue and seeking guidance.

"The regulation ostensibly allows for use of engineering controls such as ventilation, or administrative controls such as controlling employee access by allowing them to work part of the day in a location where the hazard doesn't exist, but for agricultural employers, neither of these options is available," he said. "Agricultural employers are forced to rely on N95s, which they simply can't get."

Little said he's been in touch with Cal\OSHA to discuss alternatives. Absent an adequate supply of N95s, Little said, Cal\OSHA is testing KN95 respirators, which are certified in China but not in the U.S. The KN95 is designed to stop particles of 3 microns or larger. Little said they are not approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

In response to the N95 shortage, he said, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation issued guidance in the spring allowing pesticide applicators to use other filtering face-piece respirators that provided equivalent or better protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a list of NIOSH-approved filtering face-piece respirators at www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/disp_part/default.html.

"The problem is, those are no more available than N95s, because they're made by the same people," Little said, "and for the reasons that there aren't enough N95 respirators to go around, there are not enough of those other types to go around, either.

"You are required to offer it, but if they don't exist, you can't offer them," he said, noting that Farm Bureau and other organizations continue to work with government agencies to find solutions.

Access to personal protective equipment was one of the concerns raised by organizations representing the fresh-produce business, which asked Congress last week to "include vital resources for farmworker safety" in the next COVID-19 relief package.

In a letter to House and Senate leaders, the groups—including the American Farm Bureau Federation and a number of California-based commodity organizations—requested additional help in protecting employees in the produce business.

"In particular," the letter said, "farmers need access to additional testing for their farmworkers, priority access to PPE and a vaccine and/or therapeutic medicines as they become available, as well as funding to quarantine those who test positive for COVID-19 and to isolate individuals who have been exposed to others who tested positive for COVID-19."

In response to the need for quarantine housing in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a new program, Housing for the Harvest, aimed at farm employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has.

Under the program, the state will contract for hotel rooms to be held for 14 days to house farm employees who meet those criteria and cannot observe social distancing at home, said Taylor Roschen, a CFBF policy advocate. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is covering 75% of the cost, and the state is picking up the rest, she added.

"Counties have to be the point of contact and coordinate with the state and employees," Roschen said. "The program is focusing primarily on Imperial County, the Central Valley and Central Coast, likely Monterey and Ventura."

With the rise of cases in the Central Valley and more employees anticipated for harvest work in the next few months, a need for more isolation opportunities exists, she noted.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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