Manitoba health officials have sent decade-old N95 respirators, which are no longer certified for use by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to front-line staff.
At least three hospitals and a personal care home in two health regions have boxes of outdated "North" brand N95 masks.
Honeywell, the manufacturer, said the masks were produced in 2008 and 2009 and have been discontinued. The product has not been certified by NIOSH for use as an N95 respirator since 2013.
"We have been calling on the government to give our members N95 masks, and the government has been dragging its heels. Front-line health care workers should have every protection possible. Cutting corners is not acceptable," said Abe Araya, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Manitoba, which represents 36,000 workers, 19,000 of whom work in health care. "To give decade-old masks is unacceptable, completely."
Araya said the masks are in circulation at the hospital in Thompson, a personal care home in Flin Flon, Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach and Portage District General Hospital.
The Free Press’s request for an interview with Shared Health was not accommodated on Wednesday.
In a written statement, a spokesperson said the province received approval from Health Canada in May to continue using North brand respirators, which were purchased in 2009 as part of the H1N1 pandemic supply.
"It’s important to note that when manufactured, the North 7130 N95 respirator had passed and bore NIOSH approval. The company has since been sold and the series is no longer being manufactured, so NIOSH recertification was not pursued by the new manufacturer," the statement said.
Araya said on Wednesday the union has filed grievances over the outdated protective gear. The organization's communications director said on Thursday morning that those grievances have yet to be filed and they are pursuing action with the employer.
The masks — which are meant to provide a greater level of protection against airborne particles and are used in situations where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is higher — have been in use since at least the spring, Araya said.
One emergency room nurse in the Southern Health region, who wears the North N95 mask each shift for hours while treating COVID-19 patients, said having outdated, uncertified equipment causes her to doubt her own safety at work.
"It’s the only thing that’s keeping us safe," said the nurse, who requested anonymity. "It doesn’t make you feel very protected, that’s for darn sure."
Following the snafu with medical masks in mid-November — in which the province distributed nearly four million, decade-old Technologist Choice-brand masks, and then recalled the equipment after the manufacturer said it did not support use of masks older than five years — health-care workers have been on the lookout for other expired gear, the nurse said.
She said getting a proper seal with the North N95 mask has always been a challenge, it sheds fibres after prolonged use and the elastics are not as tight as they ought to be. Now, she wonders if the age of the mask is to blame.
"They keep making me question what they’re telling me. I don’t feel like they’re actually keeping me safe, they’re looking at the dollar sign," she said. "We’re trying our best, but I don’t know if the employer is doing the best for us."
According to Honeywell, respirators such as the North N95, don’t have a defined shelf life so long as they’re kept in the original package and carefully stored in a controlled environment. If storage conditions can’t be assured, respirators are typically discarded five years past the manufacture date.
Shared Health said it has about 45,000 North N95 masks on hand (the total N95 stockpile is about 3.1 million). The masks are in use by staff in Southern Health, Prairie Mountain, Northern Health and CancerCare Manitoba.
The spokesman said less than 2,300 staffers are exclusively fitted for the North N95 and they are currently being fit-tested for alternative models as part of a provincial initiative.
Staff who can wear different brands are being given other options, the spokesman said, while use of the North N95 mask will continue until fit-testing has been completed.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.