Everything Employers Need to Know about Respirators and Masks

Respirators. N95 masks. KN95 masks. By now we’ve all become at least somewhat familiar with the personal protective equipment (PPE) that is being used by healthcare workers, businesses, family caregivers, frontline workers, and many of us to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

At the same time, you may still have questions about respirators, fit tests, and how to make sure your workers are wearing them properly. Questions like: What is a fit test? Can you wear a mask with facial hair?

Below we’re answering these and other commonly asked questions we hear from our clients.

What is an N95 mask?

An N95 mask, also known as a tight-fitting respirator, is a two-strapped mask worn over the face designed to filter out at least 95% of particles including “bacteria and viruses.” This includes both large particles as well as aerosols. It covers the nose and mouth of the wearer so that almost all air breathed in or out is filtered through the mask. Importantly, in order for tight-fitting respirators to work they must be fitted properly. If you require your workers to wear respirators, then they require fit tests.

What is a fit test?

Fit testing is the process used to determine if a tight-fitting respirator is sealed against the face of an employee. A respirator without a proper seal will not protect the wearer as effectively as the PPE is designed to do.

If you are looking for more information about fit testing, including the differences between qualitative and quantitative fit testing, you can read our article “Everything Employers Need to Know About Respirator Fit Testing” or contact us at info@osg.ca or 1-800-815-9980.

If you already know you need a fit test, please fill out the form at the bottom of this page and we will reply within one business day.

Are KN95 masks the same as N95 masks?

You might have heard or read about K95, KN95, FFP2 masks and wondered, “what’s the difference?” Simply put, different countries and regions have their own legal designation, testing, and code, that affirms that a respirator passes certification. Based on the technical specifications required of each mask designation, it is reasonable to consider these masks “equivalent.” They are all designed to filter at least 95% of particles.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has determined that during the COVID-19 pandemic, KN95 respirators are “suitable alternatives” to N95 masks. As well, the Government of Canada says that KN95 masks are an “alternative” to N95 masks.

Are KN95 masks the same as a respirator?

Yes, the K95, KN95, and FFP2 masks are also called respirators.

Does the Government of Canada consider the KN95 mask an alternative to the N95 face mask?

Yes, the Government of Canada considers the KN95 face mask an “alternative” to the N95 face mask. At the same time, most hospitals are still exclusively using N95 masks.

Do surgical masks provide the same protection as N95 and KN95 masks?

No, surgical masks are not respirators and do not conform to the same performance standards as respirators. Surgical masks are designed to block large-particle droplets such as saliva or respiratory secretions. Surgical masks also cannot achieve the same close fit as respirators, which is why Health Canada states that “they do not provide the same level of filtration.” If a wearer is sick, surgical masks can help protect people from potentially infectious coughs and sneezes.

Do respirators typically come in different sizes?

Yes, many manufacturers make respirators in a variety of sizes. As well, different manufacturers’ masks will be sized and fit differently.

Sometimes manufacturers will indicate mask sizes with small, medium, and large size designations. Other times, you may have to read the exact specifications of the mask. This can usually be found on the product or supplier label.

Many respirators can be adjusted to better fit against the face and create a seal. This is typically done with adjustable, elastic straps and a flexible metal nose clip. 

To determine if a mask fits properly you will need to conduct fit tests on your workers. Because of the chance of any given mask not fitting all of your workers, it is advised that if you are concerned about masks not fitting, that you provide your employees multiple sizes of masks to their fit tests. Keep in mind that likely one mask won’t fit everyone.

For more information on fit tests please read our post “Everything Employers Need to Know About Respirator Fit Testing.”

How can I tell if a respirator properly fits my workers?

If you require your workers to wear respirators, you must provide training, such as our online training, on how to use these masks properly and ensure a proper fit. 

As well, an evaluator must conduct a fit test. A fit test is the best way to determine if a respirator fits properly by creating an effective seal. To book a fit test or find more information, please fill out this contact form and we will get back to you within one business day.

When do my workers need to get fit tests?

If you require your workers to wear respirators and if they have never had a fit test before, they need one. In addition, workers need a fit test:

  • At least every two years according to the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) (Z94.9.1.6)
  • Whenever changes to the user’s physical condition could affect the respirator fit such as due to weight gain or loss, surgery, or major dental work
  • If they are using a new respirator make or model

Do my workers need to be clean-shaven for respirators to work?

Facial hair can interfere with creating the proper seal. That’s why the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) (Z94.4) states that workers cannot wear respirators if facial hair interferes with creating a proper faceseal. While a small moustache or goatee may not prevent a proper seal, it is possible that “5 o’clock shadow” could. Your organization may elect to create your own policy as part of your Respiratory Protection Program (RPP).

What do respirators filter?

Respirators like the KN95 or N95 filter at least 95% of airborne particles including: infectious agents, exhaust, dust, chemicals, pollen, smoke, and fumes.

Who should wear a respirator?

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, employers should conduct a risk assessment to determine how to control hazards the virus may present to workers. To determine if your organization requires respirators to be worn by workers, consider:

  • The latest advice from the WHO and Public Health Agency of Canada
  • The level and frequency of interaction works have with the public and vulnerable or infected people
  • Guidance from your governing bodies on COVID-19 protection including PPE
  • Whether other controls are adequate

If you need help conducting a risk assessment, please contact us by filling out this form.

What are the technical specifications of KN95 masks?

If you are looking for detailed information on the regional standards of different respirators, 3M created a helpful bulletin in January, 2020.

Can KN95 masks be reused?

You might have heard that the FDA has approved a single company to begin cleaning these masks during the COVID-19. While that is true, all KN95 and N95 respirators are made to be single-use and disposed of after every use. At the same time, national and local health agencies are continually updating guidelines on extended use or reuse of respirators.

The CDC has released guidelines specific to health care workers for extended use of N95 masks and “limited reuse.” They acknowledge that during the COVID-19 pandemic, limited re-use may be necessary. We strongly encourage you to check any relevant governing agencies as well as the CDC for up to date guidelines on reuse.

How long can my workers wear a respirator for? Is it safe to wear for an extended period of time?

According to the CDC, a “key consideration” for how long a mask can safely be worn is whether a respirator maintains its fit. They state that for industries other than healthcare, “Experience in these settings indicates that respirators can function within their design specifications for 8 hours of continuous or intermittent use.” 

The CDC also stresses considering other factors including how often workers take breaks and overall hygiene in the workplace to determine how long a respirator can be worn. Lastly, you should consult the current recommendations of your health agencies.

Will wearing these masks help prevent my workers from getting COVID-19?

Much has yet to be learned about COVID-19. As our understanding evolves, so do the recommendations from local and federal agencies as well as internationally recognized authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

As of the publication of this article, our understanding is, yes, along with hand-washing and other measures, masks help prevent the spread of COVID019. Health Canada has called masks and respirators “essential during the COVID-19 outbreak” and said that “they help slow the spread of the disease in Canada.” Many Canadian communities and cities are now requiring people to wear masks in public places.


If you still have questions about masks, fit tests, or any of our other products or services, you can reach out to us at info@osg.ca or 1.800.815.9980.

Or, if you are interested in fit testing or booking your organization’s fit test, please fill out this form and we will get back to you within 1 business day.