Protecting the public from inhalation hazards

Workers and the general public in the U.S. aren’t getting timely access to respiratory protective devices—face coverings, medical masks, and respirators—to protect against hazards ranging from airborne infections such as SARS-CoV-2 to wildfire smoke to mold growing indoors after floods, and the federal government should take action to address the problem, according to a new report.

The report was released February 10, 2022 by a committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Karen Emmons, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was a committee member.

The report noted that although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that employers ensure that employees are protected from inhalation hazards, not all workers are covered by OSHA or any other governmental authority.

In addition, there are no face coverings, medical masks, or respirators specifically approved for use outside of occupational settings, as well as no coordinated system on guiding and educating the public on when and how to use these devices, according to the report. The authors noted that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of guidance along with widespread misinformation led to confusion and disagreement about the need for respiratory protective devices. The pandemic also highlighted supply chain limitations in meeting demands for these devices.

The authors urged a coordinated effort by the federal government to improve communication and engagement around respiratory protective devices, secure the supply chain for them, and ensure that all people have access to them as well as guidance on how to protect themselves from inhalation hazards. Specifically, the report recommended that Congress establish an entity within the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee the development, approval, and use of respiratory protective devices for the public, and that OSHA’s respiratory protection requirements be extended to all workers.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic was not the driving force for this report, the pandemic revealed gaps needing urgent attention, providing insights into current respiratory protection practices and systems for protecting workers and the public during a crisis, and pointing to what needs to change in the future,” the authors wrote. “Immediate action is needed.”

Read a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine press release about the report: Systems for Providing Protection from Inhalation Hazards Should Extend to the Public and Broader Groups of Workers, Say New Report

Read the report: Frameworks for Protecting Workers and the Public from Inhalation Hazards