women wearing a mask

Understanding Personal Protective Equipment

As state regulations are being lifted with regard to returning to practice, it is important to be familiar with the different types of Personal Protective Equipment and its place in your practice.

As states are starting to allow practices to see patients in person again, they are also putting conditions and requirements around the reopening. One of those conditions will most likely surround the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Since this term has been a big part of our awareness since COVID-19 came into the picture, it is an opportune time to review what is considered PPE.  The second issue is going to be whether you permit or require your staff to wear PPE. First, let’s agree that you have a duty to protect both your patients and your staff. By protecting one, hopefully you are protecting all.  

OSHA Guidelines 

According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) PPE is a term which includes: gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks, and respiratory protection. PPE must be: 

  • Selected based upon the hazard to the worker
  • Properly fitted and periodically refitted, as applicable (e.g., respirators) 
  • Consistently and properly worn when required 
  • Regularly inspected, maintained and replaced as necessary
  • Properly removed, cleaned and stored or disposed of as applicable

OSHA defines healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, dentists, etc.) between “very high” and “high” exposure risks when working with known or suspected COVID patients. The risk decreases to “medium” for those individuals whose job requires frequent and/or close contact (within 6 feet of people) who may be infected but are not known or suspected to have the infection. 


Both respirators (such as the N95) and surgical masks are considered PPE; however, how they fit and how they are used is extremely different. The respiratory type (N95) fits snug against the face and filters airborne particles. They are not meant for use on children or staff with facial hair.

Surgical Masks 

Surgical masks are not the same as “face masks.” The surgical mask is loose fitting, disposable and meant to create a barrier between potential contaminates in the immediate environment. Surgical masks are not designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth and do not filter the air. However, surgical masks are still subject to OSHA PPE standards.

Cloth Face Masks 

Cloth face masks, like many of those being made at home, and being recommended by the CDC in public settings when distancing is not possible. Face masks are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators and not subject to OSHA standards. 

Follow State and National Guidelines

It is important you know the difference and the OSHA standards for your practice. As guidelines change quickly with the situation in each state and even certain counties, it’s also essential to make sure you follow your state and local guidelines as well as national guidelines. 

It is also important to review your obligations if you “require” or “permit” employees to wear PPE. Such obligations may include performing a hazard assessment, alternative work options and training. For more information, review the OSHA and CMS guidelines and stay up to date due to the fluidity of the situation.

Additional Resources

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