7 January 2022

Two transparent face masks have met the transparent face mask UK technical specification and been approved for a new pilot across clinical settings. The masks are equivalent to the ‘Type IIR’ surgical masks currently used in healthcare settings.

The RCSLT has been calling for the introduction of transparent face masks for use in environments where surgical masks would be required since early on in the pandemic for speech and language therapists and people with communication needs.

In the UK there are up to 14 million people living with communication difficulties. These difficulties present a challenge in interacting with others and accessing health and social care, such as speech and language therapy, when opaque masks are used.

A transparent face covering (the Clear Mask) was piloted in September 2020. The feedback from this pilot highlighted this product did not meet the standards for medical use.

As a result, a new UK technical specification was written and approved by all four nations. This standard would be for a transparent mask that reduces the risk of respiratory infection of patients by healthcare workers and might provide some protection against splashes and droplets for the wearer.

The masks, with a clear front panel, aim to help improve communication and reduce the difficulties for people with communication needs and speech and language therapists working with them.

The pilot will assess the effectiveness of the transparent masks in line with the level of protection that they have been designed to afford. It is important to note that, as outlined in the technical specification, these masks are not equivalent to respiratory protection equipment which may be needed when dealing with infectious patients.

A new risk assessment tool and resources have been developed in partnership with a range of professional organisations and experts to enable members to assess the need for this higher level respiratory protection.

These resources include guidance on the different types of respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

If effective, it is important to note that the transparent masks, when worn correctly should provide adequate protection against large droplets, splashes and contact transmission. They may also slightly reduce risks associated with infectious aerosols, but they are not designed to be sufficient to reduce the risk of transmission in the following example situations:

  • When in close contact (within 2m) with people suspected or known to have COVID-19. Note risks are increased when in close proximity to the patient’s head/face for procedures such as mouth care, swallowing assessment, insertion of naso-gastric tube, chest percussion).
  • Where ventilation is unable to adequately remove the risk of infectious aerosols.
  • Where staff are exposed to people suspected or known to have COVID-19 for extended periods of time or for shorter but more frequent periods such as in accident or emergency or ‘out of hours’ clinics.

This means that, should the pilot of these transparent masks be successful, they cannot be used to replace FFP2, FFP3 or PAPR respirators or be used where care is being provided in close quarters in poorly ventilated spaces and with service users who may be COVID-19 positive or where status is unknown.

There are other transparent masks which are coming onto the market, are reusable and are equivalent to FFP3.

These include MyMaskFit P3 masks which are in process of certification to ISO-EN-13485 standards and EN-1827 CA/CE Marking with notified body for approval BSI.

Scotland leads the way

A transparent face mask was first approved for use in health and social care settings across Scotland in December. Distribution of the Alpha-Solway transparent face mask to Health Boards is based on prioritisation guidance. The RCSLT helped to write the prioritisation guidance. As a result this highlights people and staff working with people with communication or hearing needs as a priority group for its use.

The rest of the UK

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will pilot two transparent face masks, the Alpha-Solway and the Contechs transparent face mask, across a variety of settings at the beginning of the year. The DHSC have agreed with us that speech and language therapists are a priority group for the pilot and several services have been included. User feedback will be collected on a range of factors, including the effectiveness of masks for communication, before wider dissemination.

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