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Supply issues with PPE and working safely during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

The pandemic has put pressures on getting some items of PPE including respiratory protective equipment (RPE). However, workers must still be protected from work hazards.

This guidance is for non-healthcare workplaces. Go to the NHS website for guidance on supply and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in healthcare.

If you don’t normally use RPE such as respirators (these use special filters to protect the wearer), you will not need them because of coronavirus. We have separate advice on using face coverings and face masks during the pandemic.

This webpage includes guidance on what to do if you can’t get your normal supplies of RPE and how you can still reduce the risk for workers. It also contains advice on:

Using respirators past their shelf life

Buying respirators that will protect your workers

Reusing disposable respirators (for example FFP2 or FFP3)

Steps you can take to manage RPE supply shortages

If you can’t get your normal supplies of PPE

If you are unable to get PPE through your normal supplier, you could:

  • keep in contact with your supplier so that you know the latest position
  • find other sources of supply
  • join with other businesses and place a bulk order as it may be easier than obtaining smaller volumes
  • check that you are efficiently managing the provision and use of PPE within your business

You could also use alternative equipment that provides at least the same level of protection. Always use CE-marked PPE, provided with a Declaration of Conformity and with accompanying instructions in English. If a European Standard has been applied, it will be specified on the Declaration of Conformity.

Gloves

If you cannot get the normal single-use gloves you use, make sure your new supplier provides the type of gloves which give the right protection for your substance and task. Avoid using latex gloves as they can cause skin sensitisation and asthma.

Choosing the right gloves to protect skin

Checking your skin for early signs of dermatitis (poster)pdf

Visors

If you cannot get your normal supplies of visors, you must stop the work unless you can find suppliers who can provide products:

  • with the safety-critical features you need, for example being impact-resistant
  • that are CE marked – during the pandemic many homemade visors have been produced that would not provide suitable protection in the workplace

If you need to change the method of face protection, for example from visors to goggles, you must confirm that you can still adequately control risk, explain this to workers and update your risk assessment.

Reducing the risk without using your normal RPE

If you cannot get your normal respirator, you should reassess the risks and work through the hierarchy in the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), for example:

  • avoid working with the hazardous substance
  • substitute the hazardous substance for one that is less harmful
  • do the work in another way to reduce exposure
  • put in place other controls to reduce exposure

In taking control measures, talk to your workers so you can resolve issues together. You could:

  • use processes that generate less dust
  • use local exhaust ventilation (LEV)
  • use different respirators than normal that provide at least the same level of protection – consider loose-fitting powered helmets or hoods
  • preserve your respirator supplies by using them in the right way and for the right tasks
  • move people who are not doing the task away from the area to reduce the number of respirators needed
  • organise work to reduce the number of respirators needed (use one worker for a series of jobs rather than several all needing respirators)
  • group tasks needing respirators together, so they are done during one shift or day

Ensure respirators are only used for tasks where really needed. If you only have a limited number available, think about what must be done and what can wait.

If you improve control measures or use alternative ways of working, your risk assessment may show that you do not need RPE or can use a respirator with a lower assigned protection factor (APF).

Guidance is available in HSE’s COSHH essentials sheets or from your trade association.

If you cannot adequately control the risk using other measures, you should stop specific work activities until suitable respirators are available. You should also check the safety alert on face masks designated KN95.

Using respirators past their shelf life

If you have to use respirators past their shelf life expiry date, they must be retested against the EN149 standard by an independent testing laboratory to ensure they are still suitable for use.

You should contact the manufacturer first. If they can’t help you, there is guidance from the Office for Product Safety and Standards or you could contact a European notified body, or an independent test facility.

Buying respirators that will protect your workers

Make sure respirators are safe to use and have been tested to make sure they provide the protection you expect them to. The British Occupational Hygiene Society have produced guidance on spotting a fake respirator. The European Safety Federation also have guidance on how to spot fake paperwork including checking the EC Declaration of Conformity.

If you provide respirators with a lower protection factor than your assessment shows, this would put workers at risk of ill health.

Tight-fitting respirators (such as disposable FFP3 masks and reusable half masks) rely on having a good seal with the wearer’s face. A face fit test should be carried out to ensure the RPE can protect the wearer.

Reusing disposable respirators (for example FFP2 or FFP3)

In extreme circumstances, when supplies of disposable respirators are not available, respirators can be reused over the course of a working day or shift, as long as they remain adequate and suitable. This means the respirator must be able to maintain a face-seal and must not be torn or damaged, not wet or heavily contaminated with the hazardous substance, and is not hard to breathe through:

  • the worker should also check there is no damage or defect that would stop the respirator protecting them by carrying out a ‘fit check’ every time the respirator is worn (make sure there are no air leaks around the seal)
  • do not use the filter or mask if it is damaged or contaminated
  • store the respirator in a clean, dry place away from airborne hazardous substances when it is not in use
  • respirators must only be reused by the same worker
  • workers should be able to put the respirator on and off without being contaminated, washing their hands before and after doing it
  • dispose of the respirator safely at the end of the shift or sooner if it becomes soiled, wet or damaged

Steps you can take to manage RPE supply shortages

Identify existing work tasks and processes where RPE is currently required

Make sure you consult with workers to help identify these tasks and processes.

Can you eliminate or substitute any hazards?

For example, use:

  • non-stick surfaces in bakeries instead of traditional flour
  • a block splitter instead of a cut-off saw

Can you change the process or way of working to reduce exposures at source?

You could achieve this, for example, by:

  • using low-dust flours in bakeries instead of traditional flour
  • covering cables to avoid chasing out
  • segregating tasks for which respirators are required, so most workers will not need to wear them

Can you organise the work to limit the need to use RPE?

For example, you can arrange work/production/maintenance schedules to reduce the number of respirators needed by:

  • postponing non-essential work requiring the use of respirators, eg maintenance work during shutdown
  • limiting the number of workers needing respirators to the minimum required to safely complete the task
  • letting one worker wearing a suitable respirator carry out a series of tasks, rather than several people all using respiratory protection. Make sure you don’t increase other risks (eg from noise and vibration) – you might need to rotate different people on different days
  • grouping tasks which require respiratory protection together, so they are done during one day/shift, rather than spread out across the week

Can you apply engineering controls?

Where you can, implement engineering controls by following guidance in HSE’s COSHH essentials sheets or from trade associations.

If RPE is still required, can you use alternative respirators?

You could consider using a respirator with a higher assigned protection factor (AFP), for example a powered air hood or helmet. If you know you have lower exposures, you may be able to wear RPE with a lower protection factor but your risk assessment should justify this.

Remember – you should never use RPE with a protection factor of less than 10 for protection against hazardous substances, and all RPE must be CE-marked. Don’t forget that fit testing is needed for tight-fitting respirators.

Can you conserve the current stocks of RPE (which you usually use) while working safely?

You could achieve this, for example, by:

  • temporarily extending the employer’s plan for when respirators are disposed of and replaced
  • using respirators past their manufacturer-designated shelf life
  • reusing disposable respirators (eg FFP2 and FFP3). You must consider these options in the context of manufacturer’s recommendations and HSE guidance

Can you implement these measures?

Implement and routinely evaluate to ensure the measures continue to control exposures to acceptable levels. Document the decision and communicate it to workers.

What if you can’t implement these measures to get the right supplies?

Suspend work activities. Document the decision and communicate it to workers.

Find out more

To make sure you get the right respirators for your work, read our guidance on choosing the right RPE.

Check the safety alert on face masks designated KN95

Page last reviewed: 25 November 2020

Next review due: 24 December 2020