Understanding face masks and face coverings in the workplace

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In its latest guidelines the government has been making a distinction between face masks which are to be reserved for health care settings and face coverings that can be improvised for use by the general public.

Between those two poles are a whole host of situations at work where a face mask and other PPE becomes a necessity. Examples include:

  • All kinds of retail settings from small shops to fast food outlets where staff need to protect themselves and their customers
  • Estate agents and surveyors visiting properties with clients
  • Office workers
  • Anyone facing a busy commute on public transport
  • Transport and logistics workers who work with the others
  • Setting up safe manufacturing workflows

Add to this the continuing problems of supply for care homes and adult social care and there is still a big need for masks and indeed gloves for people at work.

At Paxonomy we are working with organisations large and small to solve these PPE problems without compromising healthcare supply.

A key question for many is how to cut through the confusion of face mask types.

Here is our quick guide to get you started (with more detail below):

  • Face covering
    This is an improvised face mask typically using cotton such as an old T-shirt, basic filtration using layers of kitchen towel and elastic bands. A face covering will have limited effectiveness and may give a false sense of security.
  • Face mask – Type I/II medical masks
    These are designed to stop clinicians spreading infection to patients in a medical setting. They will help stop someone wearing it from spreading a virus to others (inside to outside) but offer only limited protection to the wearer from other people.
  • Face mask – FFP2/FFP3 (N95/KN95)
    These masks are more expensive but the key distinction here is that they are tested for effectiveness against particles coming to the wearer. They protect you from ‘outside to inside’ as well as protecting people around you ‘inside to outside’.

Any use of a face mask or face covering needs to include careful handling and hand washing before and after putting the mask on or taking it off to avoid contamination.

Type I and Type II medical masks

You may hear about these and be familiar with them from medical staff in a hospital.

These masks are made with increasing numbers of layers for example Type II are 3 ply and type II R are 4ply masks

A further variation is an ‘R’ on the end eg Type II R. The R stands for a bacterial filtration efficiency of 95%. These masks were designed for a medical setting and so are tested based on the user breathing out.

The important thing to bear in mind is that they primarily protect other people from you in case you have the virus but are asymptomatic. They have become a familiar sight in Asian countries that dealt with SARS but they offer only limited protection for the user from those around them. So they are best used in a confined setting where you are not encountering lots of different people.

FFP2 and FFP3 Face Masks (see also N95 and KN95)

A filtering facepiece or FFP mask was originally designed for wearing in work situations to filter out dust, mists or fibres.

In the current coronavirus pandemic they also offer protection from droplet infection from other people who have the virus. So they are a step up from Type I and Type II masks and suitable for many more applications.

FFP2 protects against solid and liquid irritating aerosols. Minimum filter efficiency of 92%.
FFP3 protects against solid and liquid toxic aerosols. Minimum filter efficiency of 98%.

FFP2 is the equivalent of the N95 standard which applies in the USA (in China it is KN95).

The next key distinction is between disposable and reusable: we are disposing of masks at a prodigious rate and we need to find a more sustainable solution.

Paxonomy has a reusable FFP2 face mask option available that can be hand washed and reused multiple times therefore cutting down on waste.

We provide disposable face mask products in the short term whilst also developing more sustainable products for the long term.


Covid 19 a guide to face masks – Dental Nursing
Coronavirus: Who should wear a face mask or face covering? – BBC NEWS

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