Respirator Certification – What Does N95 Really Mean?

Respiratory Protection
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Banej

Selecting respirators appropriate for your workplace can be a daunting task. Respiratory protection program managers need to understand the airborne hazards in their facilities, determine the required assigned protection factor for a respirator, choose what type of respirator is needed (air-purifying or atmosphere-supplying, tight-fitting or loose-fitting) and make sure each employee’s respirator fits properly.

The term “N95 respirator” gets thrown around a lot because it is one of the most common types of respirators. In this post we’re going to take a look at what that term (and similar terms like R99 and P100) mean. Understanding these labels is important for both employers and employees because both need to know the respirators being used are sufficient for the hazards present.

NIOSH Certification Levels for Particulate Filtering Respirators

For a respiratory protection program to be OSHA compliant it must use respirators certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH, a division of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has 10 classes of approved particulate filtering respirators.

Note: Particulate filtering respirators belong to the air-purifying respirator category, meaning they remove hazardous particles from the air. Two main styles of respirators fall into this category: filtering facepiece respirators and elastomeric respirators. Powered-air purifying respirators (PAPRs), which use a battery-powered blower to move air through the filter (making it easier for breathe) are also available.

filtering facepiece respirator, elastomeric respirator
Filtering facepiece respirators (left) and elastomeric respirators (right) both use NIOSH-approved filters. Photo: NIOSH

These 10 classes specify two things: the amount of particles filtered by the respirator and whether the respirator is resistant to oil. In the list below, the letter indicates whether a respirator is resistant to oil and the number indicates the percentage of airborne particles the respirator will filter.

  • N95, N99, N100 – These respirators are not resistant to oil (think N for “not resistant”) and filter 95%, 99% or 99.97% of airborne particles.
  • R95, R99, R100 – These respirators are somewhat resistant to oil (think R for “resistant”) and filter 95%, 99% or 99.97% of airborne particles.
  • P95, P99, P100 – These respirators are highly oil resistant (think P for “oil proof”) and filter 95%, 99% or 99.97% of airborne particles.
  • HE (High Efficiency Particulate Air) – These filters are only used in powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs). These devices filter 99.97% of airborne particles.

These certifications can apply to either disposable filtering facepiece respirators that cover the nose and mouth or filters that are inserted into reusable elastomeric respirators. Companies that make respirators must submit their product to NIOSH for testing, so all NIOSH-approved respirators have gone through a thorough vetting process.

Hazard label

How to Identify NIOSH-Certified Respirators

Manufacturers clearly label their products so you can easily see whether a respirator is NIOSH-certified. All approved respirators have an approval number (or TC number) on the product’s label within the packaging. Filtering facepiece respirators may also have an N95 (or similar) number printed on the respirator itself along with a NIOSH logo.

Fraudulent Respirators

Fraudulent respirators are a problem in the marketplace. In some cases these respirators are labeled with “N95” or the NIOSH logo, but they haven’t actually gone through NIOSH certification or they’ve been rejected by NIOSH. Oftentimes these products are sold for less money than certified respirators, so the prices tempt cost-conscious companies. Safety managers and others responsible for purchasing respirators should confirm their selections have legitimate NIOSH approval. They can do so by checking NIOSH’s Certified Equipment List.

Altered Respirators

Some companies also sell respirators that have been altered in some way, often to make them look more fashionable. Adding decorations or fabric to a respirator voids the product’s NIOSH certification, and doing so can pose health risks. Respirators decorated with additional cloth can make it more difficult to breathe and even cause carbon dioxide to build up in the mask. Taping, gluing or stapling anything to a respirator can cause contaminated air to leak through the respirator.

respiratory protection
Training employees in how to use respirators is a key part of a respiratory protection program.

Additional Notes about NIOSH Certification

Finding NIOSH-certified respirators for your workplace should not be too difficult, as the NIOSH list of approved devices includes over 7,000 products. Just make sure the respirators you choose are appropriate for the hazards in your facility. If your workplace has oil in it (perhaps for use in machines), consider whether an R or P class respirator would be best.

For workplaces in the healthcare industry, also keep in mind that NIOSH does not certify surgical masks, as they are intended to protect patients, not provide clean air for the wearer. NIOSH also doesn’t evaluate how effective respirators are at preventing specific illnesses. The FDA evaluates those claims.

For more information about OSHA’s respiratory protection standard (1910.134) and selecting appropriate respirators, read this blog post or visit NIOSH’s Respirator Trusted-Source Information page.

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