Respiratory health takes center stage
The term PPE – personal protective equipment – has become part of the nation’s vernacular since the arrival of COVID-19. While once reserved for medical professionals and workers like farmers and ranchers in professions that deal with dangerous chemicals or other hazards, the pandemic made PPE masks commonplace among everyone from fast-food employees to grocery store shoppers.
Since the pandemic broadened the use of masks, certified occupational health nurse Charlotte Halverson says she hopes that those who should have been wearing them all along because of workplace hazards will be more likely to do so now.
“We’ve spent years trying to convince people in agriculture that respiratory protection is extremely important, and we’ve had successes and made progress, but now this is becoming their normal,” says Halverson, who is the clinical director for AgriSafe, a nonprofit organization of health professionals in the agriculture industry.
Choose the right mask
Halverson recommends the N95 respirator, certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to filter out 95% of airborne particles. It is the minimum amount of protection recommended for hazardous tasks like many agricultural jobs.
If N95 respirators aren’t available, Halverson suggests moving up to N100 or half-face respirators, which are designed to fit tightly on the face and filter all incoming air.
Halverson says cloth face masks or bandanas aren't enough. “For tasks where respiratory protection is required, cloth face coverings are not an adequate substitute for a NIOSH-certified respirator,” she says.
Respiratory issues tend to be fairly common among farmers, and unfortunately, that puts them at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications. “We know we have our farmers emptying out moldy grain bins or busting up wet hay bales,” Halverson says, “so that’s a population that may already have underlying respiratory issues, which puts them at risk for hospitalization if they become infected.”
She suggests taking a look at other practices as well to limit respiratory damage. “Is it possible to look at the administrative controls or environmental controls? Can you do something to increase ventilation? With chemical application, is there a different chemical you can use that will provide the same amount of protection but be less hazardous? Those are the questions we pose,” she says.
AgriSafe offers comprehensive PPE recommendations for men and women working with grain, livestock, and chemicals at agrisafe.org/personal-protective-equipment-ppe. The site also offers printable PPE checklists to share with family members and employees or post in work areas.
For a complete list of NIOSH-approved N95 particulate filtering facepiece respirators, see cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/disp_part/n95list1.html.