How Workplaces Can Respond to Shortages of PPE

Can’t get the N95 masks your workplace requires? Here’s what to do

Protecting employees in the face of unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) is a challenge facing workplaces in every industry sector. 

That’s why WSPS has published FAQ: PPE Considerations, a document on how workplaces can respond to shortages of three high-demand types of PPE: disposable N95 masks, protective apparel and nitrile gloves. 

“In the hierarchy of hazard controls, PPE is ranked as the least effective hazard control, the last resort,” says Wagish Yajaman, WSPS’ Manager of Technical Services. “However, in times like this, when workplaces have had to respond overnight to a whole new set of hazards, PPE may provide a short-term solution.

“But before using PPE we need to be clear on the hazards we’re protecting ourselves from, as well as the limitations of PPE. For instance, there is a distinct difference between NIOSH-rated masks* and non-NIOSH rated masks, such as the blue surgical masks or cloth masks many people are using.” 

N95 protectors are not so much masks as “particulate filtering facepiece respirators.” These single-use, disposable respirators filter airborne particulates and aerosols in the air around us, whereas the blue surgical masks and cloth masks prevent wearers from ejecting particles of saliva, and reduce the probability that users will touch their face.

Exploring your N95 options

Here’s a lightly edited excerpt, from FAQ: PPE Considerations, on N95 masks.

The use of N95 masks has been deemed necessary in your work environment. Disposable N95 respirators are unavailable, what do you do?

  • Start by understanding what “N95” means. N = not oil proof; “95” refers to the respirator’s percent efficiency in filtering particulates at 3 microns in diameter. If N95 respirators are not available, would R (oil resistant) or P (oil proof) rated respirators provide the required protection? N, P and R respirators all filter out particulates at 3 microns and depending on the device are 95%, 99% or 100% efficient. These disposable respirators are not designed to be washed or wetted.
  • Consider possible alternatives to disposable respirators, such as half face respirators and power air purifying respirators. They offer greater protection and have one or two HEPA filter cartridges that can be replaced, depending on the style. Unlike disposable respirators, these respirators can be cleaned and reused. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. 
  • Include workers in the respirator selection process to minimize the possibility of user acceptance issues. Inform workers required to use an alternate style of respirator of any changes. 
  • No matter the type of respirator, ensure wearers are trained on the equipment’s use and limitations, and are properly fit tested. Refer to CSA Standard Z94.4-18 – Selection, use and care of respirators. Ensure that manufacturer directions for use, cleaning and maintenance are followed. 
  • When fit testing respirators, sanitize the fit testing hood and associated equipment between users: 19-pandemic.pdf 
  • When removing the respirator after use, take precautions to prevent the contaminant from spreading. Dispose of the mask in a way that avoids contaminating other surfaces. 
  • Re-assess why respirators are used in the workplace and consider alternatives to eliminate the need for this personal protective equipment. Eliminate tasks that require the use of respiratory protection wherever possible or delay the work until appropriate PPE can be obtained. Controls at the source of the hazard and along the path may offer better protection in the long run and be more cost effective. 

Regardless of the PPE you choose, it’s effective only if people wear it correctly. Ensure PPE training includes the fit, use, care, putting on and taking off, maintenance, cleaning and limitations of the PPE. Provide and maintain appropriate containers for disposal of used PPE.

Other ways to reduce the risk of exposure 

In the hierarchy of controls for biological, chemical and physical agents, elimination, engineering controls, and administrative controls and/or work practices may all be more effective than PPE at reducing risk. FAQ: PPE Considerations takes you through the hierarchy, and provides examples of ways to apply each control.  

This article was prepared by Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), helping Ontario businesses improve health and safety for over 100 years. For more COVID-19 related information, visit or contact WSPS at

* NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) air filtration ratings are a classification system for respirators that filter particulates. This system has nine classifications of approved particulate filtering respirators.

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