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January 16, 2023
NIOSH offering $350K for respirator fit-testing solution

An individual or a team submitting an innovative respirator fit-testing concept could receive $350,000 in a challenge announced January 10 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The challenge attempts to address two problems with respirator fit testing:

  • Small and disadvantaged businesses often lack the resources needed to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) initial and annual fit-testing requirements under the respiratory protection standard.
  • Members of the public now wear respirators like N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs) for protection from infectious diseases like COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), as well as pollution and wildfire smoke, without knowing whether they have achieved proper fit for adequate respiratory protection.

Participants in the challenge must submit a 10-page maximum concept paper outlining an idea on how to improve respirator fit testing by May 1. In Phase 1 of the challenge, up to 20 participants or teams will be eligible to win $5,000 and continue to Phase 2 of the challenge.

Participants can register on the challenge website and participate in an orientation webinar on February 2 for more information or to ask clarifying questions. The eligibility requirements and terms and conditions of the challenge are detailed on the challenge website.

“Fit testing is vital to ensure a respirator wearer is receiving the expected level of protection and is wearing a correctly fitting model and size,” Maryann D’Alessandro, PhD, director of NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL), said in a NIOSH statement. “We hope this Challenge helps us identify a practical solution that delivers users, whether in a workplace or not, immediate information on a respirator’s fit.”

“This Challenge provides an opportunity for innovators to develop a solution that can improve the safety and health of everyone who wears a filtering facepiece respirator,” D’Alessandro added.

Solutions that meet the criteria in the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) consensus standard for fit-test methods (Z88.10) may be considered by OSHA for valid fit-testing methods under its regulations. However, the challenge does not require that submitted solutions conform to the Z88.10 standard.

The Respirator Fit Evaluation Challenge crowdsourcing competition is sponsored by NIOSH’s NPPTL along with Capital Consulting Corporation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The NPPTL performs scientific research, participates in the development of standards for personal protective technology, develops guidance and recommendations, dispenses information, and tests and approves respirators.

“NIOSH looks forward to receiving novel ideas to improve respirator fit testing through this Challenge,” D’Alessandro continued.

To conserve respirator supplies in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when the demand for respirators resulted in shortages, OSHA temporarily suspended enforcement of its annual fit-testing requirement but has since resumed enforcing the requirements.

OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made other accommodations to address respirator shortages at the start of the pandemic, such as allowing the reuse of unsoiled, undamaged disposable respirators and the use of foreign-made FFRs not tested and approved by NIOSH. Early pandemic exemptions have since been lifted.

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