MINNEAPOLIS — At Union Station in downtown St. Paul, Metro Transit police officers respond to a call that requires them to deal with a number of individuals on the train platform. They’re urged to use caution.
One of the individuals on the train platform, who was in extremely close contact with the officers, walked away loudly coughing without bothering to cover his mouth.
To help protect officers during the coronavirus pandemic, Metro Transit Police Department has issued N95 masks. According to a copy of Metro Transit policy obtained by KARE 11, officers are instructed to wear them anytime they enter a train or bus or have someone detained in the back of their squad vehicles.
However, a KARE 11 investigation discovered Metro Transit, the Minneapolis Police Department and several other area law enforcement agencies have skipped an important step known as “fit testing” – meant to ensure the N95 masks actually provide the protection they promise.
It is a step that safety experts say is critical.
“It’s terribly important,” explained Bill Stuart, an Occupational Safety Specialist with the Minnesota Safety Council. “If it (the N95) doesn’t fit correctly – or if it’s not worn appropriately by the user – there’s too many opportunities for air to filter around the sides of the mask and negate the effect of actually filtering.”
The N95 mask respirators come in different sizes. A bad fit can mean a bad seal around the user’s face, rendering the mask ineffective.
“If it doesn’t fit correctly, it doesn’t filter the air as you would expect it to,” Stuart said.
Minnesota based 3M is a major manufacturer of the N95 masks – now in high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To ensure the masks have a proper seal on an individual's face, 3M provides guidance on how to properly conduct fit testing.
It typically involves having a plastic hood put on over the head of someone already wearing an N95 respirator. Scented aerosol is then pumped under the hood.
A 3M training video instructs, “If the fit test is completed without the subject detecting the sweet taste of the test solution, an adequate face seal has been demonstrated.”
As the nation rushed to battle the coronavirus and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supply shortages became apparent, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) relaxed some standards related to the use of N95 masks.
On March 14, they issued temporary enforcement guidance for healthcare workers that relaxed mandatory annual follow-up fit-testing for N95 filtering face pieces.
But those regulations still required an “initial fit test” done on each employee who was required to wear an N95 by their employer to protect against COVID-19.
The guidelines state, “Initial fit testing is essential to determine if the respirator properly fits the worker and is capable of providing the expected level of protection.”
On April 8 those standards were expanded to all industries and initial fit testing was still required.
“There’s no escaping the need to initially fit test an employee,” said Stuart.
But law enforcement officers asked KARE 11 to investigate because they were concerned their agencies were skipping the required safety protocols.
Disparity in Fit Testing
“Every call, every medical that we go to, our officers are donned with the N95s and that’s our protocol going forward,” said Lt. Andy Knotz with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Department.
Anoka initially issued N95 masks to their officers without fit testing. “Something was better than nothing, was our thinking,” said Knotz.
But he explained Anoka immediately began positioning itself to fit test all officers. That fit testing began this week and is still underway.
“It’s for protection of our employees and the public as well,” Knotz said.
St. Paul police report all officers issued N95s have been fit tested.
But KARE 11 discovered that’s not the case everywhere.
The Minneapolis Police Department has issued two N95 masks and other PPE to all street officers, but spokesperson John Elder told KARE 11 they are not fit testing.
The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department said not all deputies issued N95s have been fit tested.
Chief of Staff Rob Allen explained that all deputies assigned to the Public Safety Building have been tested, and the department is working to add annual fit testing for all other licensed staff due to the current COVID-19 Pandemic.
The Ramsey Co. Sheriff’s Department didn’t directly answer our question about whether their deputies had been tested. In an email, Commander Roy Robbins wrote, “Staff are working to form fit the masks to ensure proper sealing.”
Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said they plan to fit test all their deputies once their supply increases, but have not done it to-date because of concerns of damaging their limited supply of masks during fit testing.
Metro Transit police also expressed concern about damaging the masks by fit testing. Spokesperson Howie Padilla wrote in an email, “We have not been fit testing because of the constrained supply chain, we felt that it was most prudent to preserve our inventory.”
However, when KARE 11 asked the Minnesota Safety Council about these concerns about damaging limited supplies, we were told N95’s used for fit testing can be re-used under OSHA’s current COVID-19 rules and fit testing does not really affect inventory.
OSHA’s rules currently state, “employers may change the method of fit testing from a destructive method (i.e., quantitative) to a non-destructive method (i.e., qualitative). For filtering facepiece respirators, qualitative and quantitative fit-testing methods are both effective at determining whether the respirator fits properly.”
“Initial fit testing is a requirement,” said Stuart. “So, there is no excuse for not following the standard.”
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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
There is also a data portal online at mn.gov/covid19.