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A new study released Thursday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) makes recommendations to improve practices and systems to better protect workers and the public from current and future airborne threats.
Additionally, the report addresses situations beyond public health emergencies that could require guidance on respiratory protection and mask use, such as wild land fires.
Gibbs, who is an industrial hygienist whose expertise is in the disruption of highly infectious diseases, will be part of briefings with the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Respiratory protection is currently covered only for a smaller portion of workers in the United States who are covered under OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) respiratory protection programs,” Gibbs said. “This report recognizes the need to expand these respiratory protection programs to all workers and outlines a way to help the general public better protect their respiratory health outside of the workplace.”
The recent COVID-19 pandemic along with wildfires and other events have highlighted how airborne hazards have the potential to affect every person in the United States. However, there remains confusion among workers and the public about what type of respirator, face covering or medical masks to use, where to get them, and how to use them.
“This report was requested by three federal sponsors, the National institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of State, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation because they recognize the importance of this issue,” Gibbs said. “The planning for this study predates the current pandemic, but its importance has certainly been highlighted by the pandemic.
“The need for better and clearer respiratory protection impacts workers and members of the general public every day across the country.”
The NASEM report identifies challenges and gaps in approaches for respiratory protection for workers as well as the public. Among the major challenges facing the workers is that respiratory protection is largely tied to OSHA coverage, however many of the workers in the United States fall outside the jurisdiction of OSHA.
In addition, protection offered to workers from respirators may be diminished as a result of improper fit.
To remedy these issues the researchers recommend filling the gaps in protection for workers by expanding OSHA coverage, developing comprehensive workplace exposure standards and targeted guidance and training on use of protective equipment for workers.
While OSHA covers workers, there is no such authority charged with handling oversight of respiratory protection for the public and messaging and guidance is unclear and sometimes conflicting.
The report points to the need for a coordinating entity to oversee and coordinate efforts related to respiratory protection for the public, ensuring availability and access to respiratory protective devices and development of clear and consistent guidance and training for individuals in charge of educating the public. The researchers also suggest establishing a national laboratory to evaluate and approve respiratory protective devices for the public.
“There is a large portion of our population in need of respiratory protection with no organization offering them clear guidance, and that population is becoming more aware of the need because of their experience with wild land fire and the pandemic,” Gibbs said. “Two years ago, N95 respirators were not widely known and now they are referred to in general conversations.
“This report offers recommendations and a novel framework to address the current gaps in approaches to offer a pathway to better respiratory protection for both workers and the general public.”
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