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How A Popular Government Infographic About Beards Came To Be

“To beard, or not to beard?” Not exactly the question Shakespeare asked, but a worthy question posed by NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL). Fit testing employees with beards is a frustration that NPPTL often hears about from its stakeholders. Using a little bit of creativity, NPPTL’s communications staff came up with a unique way to raise awareness among workers and employers that facial hair that lies along the sealing area of a respirator will cause a respirator to leak.

NIOSH published an infographic, “Facial Hairstyles and Filtering Facepiece Respirators” in 2017 to accompany a NIOSH blog that explains how facial hair can interfere with respirator fit during employee fit testing and use. “We created the infographic as a fun visual to enhance this article,” said Jackie Cichowicz, MA, a health communication specialist who helped craft the blog and infographic. “We wanted to address questions in a way that would offer alternatives for workers who were going to be required to shave, softening the blow a bit.”

How important is your choice of facial hair if you wear a respirator on the job? According to Cichowicz, the presence of facial hair under the sealing surface—think some beards, sideburns, and some mustaches—causes 20 to 1,000 times more leakage compared to clean-shaven individuals. That doesn’t rule out all facial hairstyles and the infographic highlights which styles are still safe to sport.

NIOSH and OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, work in partnership to align with the occupational safety and health regulations and guidelines of the other. NIOSH research and guidance supports OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134, which addresses facial hair and respirator fit.

“We have received inquiries from workers and employers asking if facial hair is permitted with a respirator, and my job is to identify creative ways to respond to questions, translate the science to language respirator users understand, ultimately providing users the information they need to best protect themselves in the workplace,” said Cichowicz. “The regulations state the facts, health communication specialists at NIOSH put the information in terms that spark curiosity, interest, and ultimately safety.”

NPPTL has received great feedback from its stakeholders who have shared that they use the infographic during respiratory protection training. Even some ski patrol members, a workforce known for their beards, have cited the infographic as a go-to resource, reported by the New York Times. The infographic has been downloaded just over 19,000 times since its publication in 2017, with 95% of downloads occurring in 2020. “It’s fantastic to know that our product contributes to practices to keep workers safe,” said Cichowicz.