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Face the facts

19 November 2020

Chris Tidy discusses the role of face screens in worker protection and explains why the influx of disposable respirators onto the PPE market, means PPE purchasers must remain vigilant.

PPE RECOMMENDATIONS often focus on approved respirators but forget the wider benefits of face screens. During these unprecedented times there are several scenarios where face screens can reduce the spread of infection and offer useful protection*. When suitable face screens are used correctly they offer good protection, excellent optical class and can help reduce wearers’ exposures to aerosol spread, however, they should be used in conjunction with local social distancing rules and good hygiene as this is still the best way to control the spread of any disease. 

It is important to note that face screens are not a substitute for face coverings but may be used in instances where social distancing is not possible or where added precautionary measures are required. It must also be remembered that PPE is still the last line of defence and all other means of controlling the risk should also be explored.  

What are face screens? 

Also referred to as cough guards, visors, face guards or sneeze protection, simply put face screens are a screen for shielding the face, normally made up of a plastic screen and some type of holder that allows for attachment to the brow or in some cases a safety helmet/hard hat. Face screens have been used in industrial applications for around 50 years and eye protection has been around since the 1880s. 

How do they impact the wearer?   

Until recently it was alien for most people to wear a face covering so it may seem even more alien to wear a face screen but there are many benefits. A face screen can serve as a physical barrier to the particles you emanate when you breathe, and as a physical barrier to particles hitting you when someone coughs or sneezes. It protects not only the mouth and nose area but also the eyes, giving you a more complete physical barrier than a face mask. Face screens are easier to disinfect and it is easier to breathe while wearing one. Face screens prevent the wearer from touching much if not all their face. There is also no need to remove a screen when you are talking to someone. The use of a face screen is also a reminder to maintain social distancing but allows visibility of facial expressions and lip movements for speech perception.   

Are face screens mask replacements? 

Face screens are not mask replacements but can be an added layer in protection against aerosol spread. Most importantly, face screens do not provide as complete a barrier to block respiratory secretion aerosols from the wearer compared with a mask. A mask creates a complete or near-complete barrier on the sides of the wearer’s face, while a screen is open on the sides, which may allow some small particles and aerosols to enter. Wearing both a mask and a screen may be excessive in the public domain but in other settings such as healthcare, beauty, retail or even perhaps construction where social distancing cannot be observed may be a necessity. Reducing the risk of spreading a virus among asymptomatic individuals is extremely important. How you choose to protect yourself and others when you are out and about is up to the individual. The point of a face screen is to provide an extra layer of protection and to protect the eyes when in close contact with someone who has, or is suspected to have, a viral infection. When talking to someone very close, or sneezing, this can be transmitted through the eyes so social distancing should always be observed along with good hygiene. 

Face screens at work 

Many workers are being provided with face screens to wear at work for the first time. While this may be an added benefit providing an extra layer of protection it is also proving a challenge for many wearers. There is a plethora of face screens available at present including standalone headband examples and other safety helmet mounted versions. Some are called cough guards while others are visors, face guards or sneeze protection but anyone buying this kind of face screen must be clear about their benefits and limitations. While these face screens can help to reduce the spread of COVID-19 they won’t necessarily fulfil all the requirements of a traditional face screen. Face screens are normally certified to a standard called EN166 and within this there are mandatory requirements to which a face screen must comply. When COVID-19 hit, certification of face screens was fast tracked to provide much needed PPE to frontline workers. This met an immediate need but has raised some issues for people who bought these screens to protect them at work because the COVID-19 versions aren’t always of the same quality as regular EN166 face screens.

The first issue is around optical clarity. In the COVID-19 version of EN166 most screens being manufactured are passing Class 2 or Class 3 optical not Class 1 which means that you may suffer some visual side effects such as eye strain from your chosen screen if you are wearing it all day, this effect may also increase if you wear spectacles. 

The second issue is impact rating. Face screens, along with protective eyewear, are tested for impact in EN166, either low, medium or high impact. While this may not affect those working in the beauty industry for instance, it may affect those working in construction. The concern is the wearer may try to complete a task like brick cutting, drilling or concrete breaking thinking that the screen offers them the same level of protection, but it does not. In fact, in the COVID-19 certification there is no impact rating for the screen. 

Comfort and flexibility are also important factors particularly during prolonged use. Many of the COVID-19 face screens are static and they can’t be flipped up or easily adjusted which can interfere with a worker’s ability to do their job. The answer is to think before you purchase these types of screens and consider whether they represent value for money. Evaluate the risk first as not all face screens currently are equal.     

The environmental impact of face screens 

Air pollution levels dropped significantly when measures such as quarantines and shutdowns were put in place to contain COVID-19. Around the world, levels of harmful pollutants like NO2 (nitrogen dioxide), CO (carbon monoxide), SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and PM2.5 (small particulate matter) have plummeted, at least, while some shutdowns continue. But environmental benefits will only be temporary unless we implement long-term measures to cut emissions. It is a stark reminder that air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, is a global threat that cannot be forgotten, even in these challenging times. 

Another major issue that we will face is the environmental impact of a sudden surge of single-use plastics and how this is disposed of. The increase in single-use plastics will have long-term impacts on the environment. Versatile, affordable, and ever-present, plastics have been essential to keeping hospitals running and protecting our frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are the bedrock of medical equipment and protective gear. They’re even at the heart of innovative cross-industry collaborations to combat the virus, the luxury auto brand Ferrari, for instance, produced the thermoplastic components needed for respiratory valves, while Apple designed plastic face shields for medical professionals and shipped millions of them across the United States. 

Medical experts believe reusable materials pose no additional risk if they are routinely sanitised giving a good reason to steer clear of single use or cheap plastic face screens. Industry groups have sought to capitalise on health concerns, arguing that “plastics are essential in the effort to stop the spread of this virus.” We can only hope the spikes in use of disposables in certain sectors are temporary and will not reverse hard-won gains to reduce plastic pollution. 

* This is a general document and is not specific to any contaminant, including viruses and bacteria.  

Chris Tidy is technical & training specialist at Centurion. For more information, visit www.centurionsafety.eu


Face Screens – Cleaning 
Most face screens can be disinfected using a >=1% to <2.5% Sodium Hypochlorite (NaOCI) and/or Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) solution in order to disinfect and prevent cross contamination.  

Compatible branded cleaning/disinfection agents include: -  

Distel solution/wipes and Jet Foam (manufactured by Tristel Solutions Ltd). The solution should be at a dilution in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendations.

Chemgene HLD4H solution/wipes can be used. The solution should be at a dilution in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendations, this is generally 1:50 or 1:100 but contains benzalkonium chloride an antimicrobial agent which when used over time could cause premature ageing of certain components.

Clinell general purpose wipes are also suitable but contain benzalkonium chloride an antimicrobial agent which when used over time could cause premature ageing of certain components.

Isopropyl and Ethanol solutions or wipes may also be used but they should not contain >80% concentration level.

Care and consultation with the face screen manufacturer should be considered when choosing an alternative disinfecting or cleaning agent. 

External surface disinfecting/cleaning only is recommended.  

Prolonged exposure to, and or immersion in bleaches or any other product is not recommended.  

The products are not suitable for cleaning by Autoclave process.