Faculty and students from the MCOHS Industrial Hygiene (IH) program and the University of Minnesota School of Design participated in a research study at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair. The team conducted quantitative fit testing of commercial grade masks and an N95 respirator, evaluating the masks for fit and effectiveness.
Dr. Susan Arnold, Deputy Director of MCOHS and Associate Professor in the Industrial Hygiene program, and IH students Andrea Olson, Puleng Moshele, and Sara Garcia engaged with a steady stream of fair attendees, demonstrating various masks and sharing information about the importance of proper mask fit.
Dr. Arnold shared her reflections on the experience in a recent interview with the MCOHS outreach and communications team:
WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE?
The experience was enlightening. It was helpful to see how interested people were to participate, how curious they were to learn about how these masks and respirators fit their face, and how this information is useful to us. Despite a lower turnout on the first day of the fair due to the rain, traffic through our booth was steady. It was helpful for the study participants to see how different the fit factors were across the different mask types, and thus calibrate the quality of fit for their face.
WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF PROPER MASK FIT AND TESTING, AND WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?
Proper mask fit is one of the most critical factors determining the efficacy of this barrier tool. A great fit with a triple-layered mask might give a superior fit compared to a poorly fitting N95. A good fit also tends to point to a more comfortable fit, making it more likely that the wearer will wear the mask properly, over the full duration of the exposure period. No single mask or respirator type or style will fit universally, and that is another reason why fit testing is so important. Different face shapes and features require different cuts and styles.
Proper mask fit is one of the most critical factors determining the efficacy of this barrier tool. Susan Arnold, PhD
HOW IS THIS VITAL TO OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY, AS WELL AS THE MISSION OF MCOHS?
This pandemic has helped all of us see the importance of protecting people from health hazards when they are at work. If we do not protect the occupational health and safety of our workers and they subsequently get sick, the important work they do is disrupted, and in more severe cases, completely interrupted. Some masks and respirators have been shown to be effective exposure prevention tools that also help reduce transmission of airborne viral particles, and so getting this information and the important details about how to use masks and respirators to maximize their effectiveness is central to the MCOHS outreach mission.
WHAT ARE THE TAKEAWAY MESSAGES YOU WANT TO CONVEY?
First, I want to communicate my gratitude, and that of the whole team, to the study participants. You helped us learn about these factors in a way that will help us design better masks in the future – so thank you! Secondly, be aware that this virus remains in the air for hours, in poorly ventilated spaces after being emitted by an infected individual- when they cough, talk, sing, even when they are just breathing. So wearing a mask when around others, especially when you do not know their vaccination status, in more crowded settings and in indoor settings is an important tool you can use to reduce your risk of exposure. Tight fitting masks and respirators will provide more protection and is what is needed with this delta variant.
University of Minnesota researchers at State Fair test which masks fit best for COVID fight