"Fit Testing the N95 Mask" by AlamosaCounty PublicHealth is licensed under CC BY 2.0

N95 Day

A little over a week ago was N95 Day, a day which NIOSH created four years ago to raise awareness for respirator-use in the workplace. It happens every September 5th – get it? N95 = 9/5 (in the US, we put the month before the day. Sorry, rest of the world).

The N95 is the most common type of respirator used in the workplace, and is probably the most common found in your props shop.

"Fit Testing the N95 Mask" by AlamosaCounty PublicHealth is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Fit Testing the N95 Mask” by AlamosaCounty PublicHealth is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Some people think the N95 is a dust mask, not a respirator, but that is incorrect. The N95 is a disposable particulate respirator, but it is still a respirator, so all the rules and requirements for wearing a respirator must be followed for the N95 as well.

A couple of things about respirators. First, you have to know when to wear the right one. If you have The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater, or if you have ever attended a workshop by Monona Rossol, you know that airborne hazards come in five flavors: dust, mist, fume, vapor and gas. Dust, mist and fumes are particulates, which means they are bigger than air molecules and can be filtered mechanically. Vapors and gasses are the same size as air, so you can’t just block them; you need to chemically absorb them. So an N95 can stop dust, mist and fumes, but you need a classic cartridge respirator to stop vapor and gas.

You really need to know what you are dealing with to pick the right respirator. Using contact cement produces hazardous vapors, so an N95 will do absolutely nothing. In fact, some may argue that since any respirator creates extra stress on your body, wearing the wrong type of respirator can actually be worse than wearing no respirator.

Most chemicals we use have a mix of hazards. Spray paint is a prime example; the paint comes out in a mist, but the solvents produce vapors. So you need both a particulate and a chemical respirator. Most of the cartridges you can get for your respirator have a combination filter for doing both.

One final note: you often come across shops where they are really gung-ho about eye and tool safety, but cavalier about using respirators. It’s true that if you lose an eye, it sucks, but you have two eyes, and you can still live without being able to see. A respirator protects your lungs, and if you can’t use your lungs, you’ve only got about three minutes of life left.

Captain Cutie
Captain Cutie

This is my son. He’s adorable, right? He’s lived in the hospital since he was born 14 months ago, and needs to be hooked up to a ventilator 24 hours a day to breathe. His lungs are too small to support him. Most of us take our lungs for granted and don’t stop to think that every breath we take is a small miracle.

Not being able to breathe sucks. Wear your damn respirator.

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