December 14, 2020

How to wear N95 respirators correctly

Do your employees wear N95 respirators at work? These masks are now part of our “new normal,” but it can be difficult to know if they’re reducing the risk of inhaling hazardous airborne particles, including viruses and bacteria.

Take a closer look at our expert N95 respirator-wearing guidance to help determine if your workers are wearing their respirators correctly and receiving the expected level of protection.

Why properly fitting N95 respirators are critical

N95s offer better protection than surgical masks and cloth face masks. If worn correctly, they filter out at least 95% of large and small airborne particles and droplets (non-oil particles) from the user’s breathing air — hence the name N95. Many industries started using this type of personal protective equipment after the pandemic began.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires annual fit tests before an N95 can be worn in the workplace. This ensures each worker has a properly fitting respirator.

Healthcare workers have long worn N95s respirators, and usually have support available to help ensure a proper fit.

Unfortunately, your business may not have access to such resources, which is why the following tips can help:

Putting on an N95 respirator 

The exact procedure for putting on and taking off a respirator may vary depending on the style and model. Employees should follow these general guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to put on their respirators before performing a user seal check.

  • Wash hands with soap or use hand sanitizer.
  • Check the respirator for tears, holes or other damage. Discard if it is defective.
  • Don’t let any hair, jewelry, glasses or clothing get between you and the respirator when you place it.
  • Hold the outside of the N95 in one hand. The nosepiece should rest near the top of your fingertips. 
  • Using one hand, hold the respirator to your chin, with the nose piece facing upward and the headbands hanging around your hand. 
  • Continue to hold the respirator in place. Pull the top strap over the head and position it above the ears.
  • If you have two straps, pull the bottom strap over the head and position it below the ears, adjusting for a tight but comfortable fit. Don’t crisscross the straps.
  • Push down with fingertips of both hands on the metal nose strip, if you have one, sliding fingers up and down until the respirator fits snugly but doesn't pinch around the bridge of your nose.

Remind employees to clean their hands before touching the N95.

Performing an N95 user seal check

Your workers can perform one of two types of seal tests to check and confirm a proper seal before wearing the respirator in the workplace. Consult the instructions that came with the respirator to decide which test to use.      

Advise workers to do the seal check every time they use an N95 and to only perform the seal check with clean hands.

Workers can check their seal by performing the following:

Positive pressure seal check:

  • Cover the surface of the respirator with both hands, as if cupping the material. Then exhale gently.
  • The wearer should feel slight pressure in the respirator and feel the facepiece expand a bit.
  • No air should seep out the sides.

Negative pressure seal check:

  • Cup the hands around the respirator and inhale sharply.
  •  If the facepiece of the respirator collapses slightly, the respirator is sealed.
  • Again, no air should seep out.

When employees feel air blowing over their face from inside the respirator, that indicates a problem. Advise them to readjust the seal, then repeat the seal check.

If an issue persists, employees should see a supervisor immediately rather than try to fix it themselves. A different size, model or style of respirator may provide a better fit under the chin and over the nose.

Wearing cloth face masks? Keep these tips in mind

Not every job requires an N95. If your  employees wear cloth face masks, they should wear them correctly and safely.

A good cloth face mask will:

  • Have at least two layers of fabric.
  • Cover the nose and mouth entirely.
  • Fit snugly on the face with no gaps on the sides.

Remind employees to wash their hands before putting on the mask, which they shouldn’t touch while they work.      

They should handle only the ear loops when taking off the mask and wash their hands immediately after removal.

Need more information about respiratory protection?

Contact Pinnacol’s Safety on Call at