SRU safety management students conduct face mask tests
From left, Slippery Rock University students Sam Miloser and Evan Hilk present face mask research virtually from a room in the Strain Safety Building.
April 26, 2021
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The use of face masks can be a point of contention, or at least confusion, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Are they really effective? Are surgical masks better than cloth masks? Do they protect you or prevent you from spreading the virus? Although several studies have taken place around the country, a group of Slippery Rock University students decided to investigate for themselves by putting masks to the test as part of a safety management research project.
"We looked at some of the respiratory procedures for COVID to see which masks are most effective while also testing them for comfort level," said Alina Schlichtkrull, a senior safety management major from Wexford. "We fit tested masks and measured the particulates in the air to see how well different surgical masks, homemade cloths masks and N95 respirators protected us from the particulates. We found that the N95 masks are the best for keeping us and the people around us safe."
N95 respirators are masks that meet the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health N95 classification of air filtration, which means they filter at least 95% of airborne particles.
Schlichtkrull is president of the American Society of Safety Professionals chapter at SRU, and as part of the student organization's bid to become an ASSP Outstanding Student Section Award winner, and earning a $5,000 stipend, they needed a research project. Kaycee Vanchure, a senior safety management major from DuBois and ASSP chapter treasurer, suggested testing masks given their prevalence during the pandemic.
"This tied in perfectly with the ongoing pandemic and to better inform people about what they should be wearing," Schlichtkrull said. "I'm happy with how the project turned out given our limitations and everyone not being together on campus. We were still able to meet in small groups to conduct the fit testing with the supervision of our professors and we even got to present the research at a virtual conference."
Five students presented the research at the ASSP Western Pennsylvania Chapter's Professional Development Conference which was attended virtually by approximately 50 safety industry professionals and college students from around the region. Students who presented included Schlichtkrull, and fellow ASSP members and safety management majors Leah Bracken, a junior from Ebensburg; Evan Hilk, a junior from Irwin; Brad Kane, a junior from Ellwood City; and Sam Miloser, a sophomore from New Castle. Alyssa Royer, a senior from Pittsburgh, also participated in the study but she was not a presenter.
The fit testing process consisted of each researcher choosing a mask and testing it using a PortaCount, a type of ambient particle counting device used to provide a quantitative assessment of face seal leakage that is commonly used by industrial hygiene professionals.
"We lit a candle to act as our airborne particulate so we were sure our test would be an accurate presentation of our masks protecting us from any particulates in the air," Schlichtkrull said. "The PortaCount device then prompted the student to do a series of actions, such as breathing deeply, bending over and turning from side to side, to test the mask's seal. The PortaCount calculated the fit factor of each mask and the N95 was determined to be most effective."
The research will be part of the ASSP SRU chapter's application for the ASSP Outstanding Student Section Award, which will be announced later this summer.
More information about SRU's safety management program is available on the department's website.
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