Hundreds of Illawarra health workers will have their masks 'fit tested' to limit potential exposure to COVID-19 under a new program being rolled out across the district.
Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District is one of the first health districts in the state to implement the measure, which the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) has been campaigning for to better protect workers.
A new survey by the union reveals that almost half the state's nurses required to wear a specialist P2 or N95 mask had not been tested to ensure they were wearing the right size.
In the survey of 1270 nurses and midwives - including those working at Wollongong, Shellharbour and Shoalhaven hospitals - only one-in-four working in a COVID-19 ward and one-in-three working in an intensive care unit said they had undergone a fit test.
Among the survey responses from workers at Illawarra Shoalhaven hospitals was from a registered nurse working in an intensive care unit, who stated: "I think the fact we have not been fit tested is unsafe practice".
Other local workers said there was an inadequate supply of masks, with one claiming they were "constantly made to feel guilty for using appropriate mask and (personal protective equipment) stock". However others said they were well trained in the appropriate use of PPE, and had access to it when required.
On Monday NSWNMA Shoalhaven branch vice-president Max Moore told the Mercury that health district management had listened to workers' concerns, with fit testing to be rolled out in coming weeks.
Mr Moore, a clinical nurse specialist, is one of 10 staff members across the ISLHD who have been trained to use a PortaCount machine to test whether their colleagues' masks are properly sealed.
"Not every mask fits every face shape," he said.
"So staff will bring the size P2 or N95 mask they think fits well and the machine punctures the mask with a probe. That probe is connected to a machine which measures the particles inside the mask - and directly outside the mask.
"We're looking for leakage of the mask, and to see how many particles are getting inside. If there's an adequate seal, particles don't get in. If the mask is the wrong size, workers will be potentially exposed to COVID-19."
Mr Moore said the district has purchased three PortaCount machines, with fit testing to start next month.
"The priority for fit testing is staff working in emergency departments, intensive care units, theatres and COVID wards," he said. "Also staff who wear N95 masks in other areas - such as cancer care centres."
Since July 24, all NSW public health workers have been required to wear masks within 1.5 metres of all patients. Patients (where possible) and visitors are also required to wear masks in public hospitals and facilities.
Mostly these will be surgical masks which mainly prevent a wearer with the virus spreading it to others.
The P2 or N95 masks - used in high-risk areas such as wards with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients - are able to filter out fine particles in the air and so also protect the person wearing it from infection.
"Those wearing P2 or N95 masks need to be fit tested annually," Mr Moore said.
ISLHD chief executive Margot Mains said around 300 staff in those high-risk clinical areas would be part of the initial fit testing program.
"This is being run by a private provider and the program also involves 10 staff members from across the district being trained in how to use this specialised equipment," she said. "This will enable an ongoing internal fit testing program using three testing devices that have been purchased."
Ms Mains said all staff required to wear PPE had mandatory training in the correct application and removal of it.
"This training includes the need to fit check any mask they are wearing, each time they are about to start care with a patient," she said.
"Fit testing is a more formal and separate process which provides more information about the fit of a P2/N95 mask."
Ms Mains said throughout the pandemic, NSW Health was constantly reviewing and updating PPE guidelines to ensure the ongoing safety of health workers.
"Our frontline staff are critical to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and their safety is always our highest priority," she said.
We depend on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe here. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.