Cal/OSHA issues guidance to cope with N95 shortages

Issue Date: October 7, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

Faced with a severe shortage of N95 respirators amid a pandemic and a record wildfire season, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has released temporary guidance for agricultural employers.

Under this guidance, agricultural employers who need employees to work outdoors on smoky days will be allowed certain exceptions if they are unable to secure enough N95 masks, also called filtering face piece respirators. State regulations require employers to provide such respirators and encourage their use when the air quality index reaches at least 151 due to wildfire smoke with pollutants measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller, called PM 2.5.

The temporary guidance permits use of N95 respirators that have exceeded their shelf life, provided they were stored according to the maker's specifications; allows an employee to reuse an N95 for more than one shift if it's still in satisfactory condition; and allows use of other reusable respirators certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

The state agency said use of foreign-certified respirators, such as Chinese-certified KN95s, will be allowed if the employer tried to obtain NIOSH-certified respirators but none were available; the air-quality index for PM 2.5 particles reaches 175 or lower; the respirator has two head straps and does not have ear loops; and the respirator provides a minimum 95% filtration efficiency as measured by NIOSH testing.

Employers needing to use the temporary exceptions must be able to document that they first tried but were unable to acquire N95 masks. Cal/OSHA suggested a record of phone calls to suppliers or a pending purchase order before the agency would allow an exception.

Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation and chief operating officer of CFBF affiliate Farm Employers Labor Service, said he's been encouraging people to acquire N95s since the smoke regulation was adopted, but the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting surge in demand among health care professionals drained the supply.

The document may be read at www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/wildfire/Strategies-Optimizing-Supply-N95-Respirators-Wildfires.pdf. The temporary guidance also contains a list of N95 vendors.

(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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