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Are face masks becoming an essential health and safety intervention?
14th April 2023

The soaring levels of respiratory illness rates and resulting staff absence is leading many companies to reconsider whether they have a duty of care to provide face masks to staff.

Last winter a large number of people had been ill with respiratory diseases. At the beginning of 2022, over 3 million people were testing positive for Covid-19, but many more were also ill with influenza and rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus. While media focus has been on the impact this level of sickness among both patients and staff was having on the ability of the NHS to treat patients, little thought has been given to the impact that this may be having on industry and the challenges of keeping staff protected and safe at work for both health and sustainable economic benefit.

Many companies are currently dealing with unprecedented staffing issues. There is a therefore a discussion to be had around whether the scope of employees’ health and safety should be expanded, and whether companies should not only take precautions against airborne hazards such as dust, silica or asbestos but also around protection against respiratory avoidable illnesses.

Protection from Air Borne Hazards

Of course, masks are already common in a wide range of industries, including agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and mining, where they provide protection against a wide range of hazards, from sawdust to diesel fumes.

However, many companies are still not fully complying with Health and Safety legislation, which is having a significant impact not just on the health of their workers but also on their financial bottom-line. A study by the HSE showed that there are over 500,000 new cases of work-related ill health every year, with each case resulting in an average of 18 days taken off work. The total cost to businesses of this absence has been calculated at almost £80bn. Unsurprisingly, the cost is not evenly spread, with 5% of businesses in high-risk occupations losing more than £1m due to PPE non-compliance.

As the UK’s largest PPE manufacturer and a leading European provider of innovative protection technology solutions, Globus Group provides a comprehensive range of masks to protect against all workplace hazards. This means that as well as being experts in designing products, we also have expertise helping companies find solutions to keeping their staff safe.

Applying NHS Findings to Industry

The public discourse around the evidence for mask wearing has been varied and often confusing. This has led to widespread confusion around the relative efficacy of masks meaning that many people don’t recognise the significant differences between different categories of masks.

In reality, the science is quite straightforward: simple cloth masks provide limited protection, while high-quality and well-fitting FFP3 masks provide close to 100% protection against Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

Many studies from the NHS about hospital acquired infections particularly related to FFP3 masks can apply to everyday industrial situations. For example, a study carried out by the York Economic Health Consortium (YHEC) in 2022 showed that the universal use of properly fitted FFP3 masks could halve the number of hospitals acquired COVID infections and reduce NHS staff absences to levels similar to the general population. Cutting infections on that scale would add an additional 1.8 million staff days per year according to a further analysis conducted by Vital Economics, delivering a vital boost to hospitals’ capacity to treat patients. Imagine, if we applied this to industry, and avoidable respiratory illnesses became as significant as protection from hazards.

Although FFP3 masks are more expensive than basic masks it was found that the NHS would save far more than the extra cost via reduced staff absence, which also has a highly damaging effect on patient treatment and wellbeing.

Peter Dodd, Founder of Vital Economics, said: “Tackling staff shortages through recruitment and training alone is a costly and slow process. But by keeping existing staff healthy with comfortable, properly fitting FFP3 masks, which offer close to 100% protection against infection, we can help avoid a winter crisis in the NHS and tackle waiting lists. Ultimately FFP3 masks can save the health service hundreds of millions of pounds and reduce staff and patient suffering”.

Looking beyond the NHS, the impact on other industries is unlikely to be as significant. However, many companies that rely on staff to be present in workplaces where social distancing is difficult might consider introducing mask wearing into their health and safety protocols. Moreover, the financial costs of staff absence are felt more directly by most companies than they are in the NHS, so the impact of masks will also be clearer to see.

As such, FFP3 masks could represent excellent value for money for many businesses during periods when respiratory illnesses are common, especially since their adoption could happen almost immediately and with minimal disruption.

Not all masks are equal

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 there have been several significant studies examining the differing impact of masks. One, carried out by Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge, showed that when staff upgraded from Type IIR to FFP3 masks, their ward-based infections dropped to zero. Dr Mark Ferris from the University of Cambridge’s Occupational Health Service, one of the study’s authors, said: “Based on data collected during the second wave of the pandemic, we developed a mathematical model to look at the risks faced by those staff dealing with COVID patients on a day-to-day basis. This showed us the huge effect that using better PPE could have in reducing the risk to healthcare workers.”

Dr Chris Illingworth from the MRC Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge commented, “Once FFP3 respirators were introduced, the number of cases attributed to exposure on COVID wards dropped dramatically – in fact, our model suggests that FFP3 respirators may have cut ward-based infection to zero.”

The findings of this study strongly suggested that ensuring that staff coming into contact with Covid-19 patients were upgraded to FFP3 face masks could reduce the overall number of infections, keep staff safer, and reduce unnecessary burden on the NHS.

The key question is, when the evidence for mask wearing, especially in healthcare settings is clear, why isn’t that leading to changes in best practice across both healthcare and industry?

What next?

Looking at all the evidence for the efficacy and benefits of wearing face masks in the workplace, it seems strange that there does not seem to have been any significant movement towards changing policy around protecting against respiratory illnesses. This may come down to simple pandemic fatigue, as well as a reluctance from many leaders to address a potentially controversial topic, but there are serious consequences to this collective inaction.

Last winter saw high levels of staff absence across industry, but this doesn’t need to become the new reality. Companies should start thinking now about what measures they can put in place now to make sure that next winter’s flu season does not have such a significant impact.