Beards, stubble and other facial hair could be putting construction workers at risk by reducing the effectiveness of respiratory face masks, according to research by the Health and Safety Executive.
Respiratory protective equipment (RPE), usually in the form of a mask, is commonly recommended on construction sites for tasks associated with high risks to respiratory health, such as grinding or sanding operations, but many masks rely on a good seal against the face.
The study by the HSE has scientifically confirmed what has long been suspected – that facial hair, stubble and beards can significantly reduce the protection provided by respiratory face masks because they compromise the seal of the equipment.
The HSE says its inspectors “routinely” come across workers with various degrees of stubble growth using respiratory protective masks, despite guidance to the contrary. This prompted the safety watchdog to commission research by the Health and Safety Laboratory on the subject.
The study looked at the effect of up to seven days’ stubble growth on the protection given by filtering facepieces (FFP3) and half masks. Fifteen male volunteers took part in the study, each testing four masks.
The results showed that the effect on protection was quite specific to the mask/wearer combination. Protection could be significantly reduced where stubble was present, beginning within 24 hours from shaving, and generally worsening as facial hair grew. Statistical analysis predicted this could reach an unacceptable level for all of the masks tested.
The research has been highlighted by the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection (BOHS) which has launched the Breathe Freely initiative, aimed at preventing occupational lung disease in the construction industry.
Dr Adrian Hirst, Chartered Occupational Hygienist and President of BOHS, said: “Good grooming isn’t an area traditionally associated with effective worker health protection on construction sites but the conclusions of this research are clear – facial stubble can adversely affect the protection afforded by respiratory face masks. We urge employers to take note of this new study and incorporate it into their training processes so that all workers who need to use such masks are aware of the proven link between shaving and the protection given by their respiratory protective masks. ”
He added, “With thousands of cases of illness and death linked to lung disease in the construction sector each year, we need to make sure that when workers are using respiratory protection, we get a good fit – without leakage of contaminated air around the edges of the mask and into the lungs – every time.”