Greg Martin, vice president of product strategy and development at MSA Safety, discusses respiratory protection in the times of COVID-19.
MSA Safety has been involved in the personal protective equipment (PPE) world for 100+ years, and they’ve been actively supporting the health care and industrial industries during this time.
In the podcast with CoatingsPro Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Chizik, Martin shares MSA's plans for other PPE product lines for 2020, including their fall protection, and gives information from their Pittsburgh headquarters and beyond. See below for a complete transcript.
[This podcast was recorded on May 6, 2020.]
Stephanie Chizik: You are located in the Pittsburgh area. What has life been like for you with regard to the COVID-19 outbreak and MSA Safety?
Greg Martin: Most of Pennsylvania has been, like many states, a stay-at-home order except for essential businesses. MSA, as a safety equipment manufacturer, is an essential business. Most of our workforce, though, if you're able to work from home, people are working from home. But our factories are still open and we’ve just had to put in a lot of different safety practices for social distancing and such because of that.
SC: I would assume, because you do produce protective gear, that you're really well-versed with what needs to be done to keep your people safe to begin with. It’s kind of a very meta experience, I would think.
GM: Exactly. Safety is really in MSA’s culture, so this was something that we take very seriously. As soon as the CDC guidance started to come out, we were implementing changes and we’re really staying on top of this from day one.
SC: I mentioned in the introduction that you guys have a collective agreement with Allegheny Hospital Network. Can you explain to us how that came about and what that entails?
GM: Yes. MSA does not manufacture N-95 disposable respirators, but we do sell them. We source them from a third party but they’re not really part of our primary product offering. Anything that we did have in inventory we donated to hospital networks around the world. What we did have in the Pittsburgh area, we donated to Allegheny Health Network, which was about 65,000 masks. We donated masks throughout the world, I think totaling approximately 140,000.
But beyond that, they were doing some work to look at their process for sterilization of the masks and asked if they could use some of our equipment. With that, MSA does manufacture elastomeric half-mask, full-mask respirators primarily used for industrial applications. So then we started working with them on that, testing. They are using our Advantage 200 Half-Mask Respirator with the P-100 filters now.
SC: I imagine those are the types of masks that our contractors might be familiar with, or inspectors who are on the jobsite and there might be debris in the air from blasting. Are those the types of masks you’re talking about?
GM: Exactly. N-95, the N means that it is not suitable for particulates or aerosols with oil in the area. There is an R, which is oil resistant. Then there’s a P, which is very oil resistant or close to oil proof. 95 is 95 percent efficient. There’s a 97. And 100 is 99.97 percent efficient against particulates. So a P-100 is just a higher class over N-95, so that’s why those are being used. They aren’t used for chemicals, which you may see certain chemical filters, which may be used by some of the contractors. But for particulates and aerosols they are the exact same masks that are being used in industry.
SC: These are the kinds of masks — not the N-95s, necessarily, but the other ones — that they could potentially reuse and that might help with the lack of PPE that’s available out there.
GM: Yes, exactly correct. Just an industrial company or application may clean and disinfect a mask after use, the hospitals are using a very similar process. With CDC guidance, and the FDA has what’s called an Emergency Use Authorization, which allows these to be used in a healthcare setting.
SC: You might not know the answer to this, but I wonder what the learning curve is with these new-to-them masks with cleanliness and fit and all the other items that come along. You can’t just buy a mask and go, I wouldn’t think.
GM: Absolutely. There was training that went along with this. They’re fully aware and rolled out a fit-testing program for using these. Hospitals actually have very advanced sterilizations labs with a lot of different equipment. They were in contact with us all along the way on different techniques and what you could use and what you couldn’t use. Then they’d send them back to us to investigate. They have their process down now, and it was all using their existing equipment and then we just looked at it to make sure that it didn’t affect the mask itself after multiple times through the process.
SC: That makes sense. So it doesn’t affect that the user is still getting the best protection that they did from day one, for example.
SC: Obviously you're having to ramp up production to be able to supply now not only the healthcare industry but additionally there are still people who are considered essential workers who traditionally have been buying the industrial masks. Is that the case? Are you having to produce more to meet a bigger need now?
GM: Absolutely. These masks that we’re talking about here are made at an MSA subsidiary in North Carolina. Just looking at that site, immediately we went to three shifts. Then we’re adding equipment and we’re doing process optimization to put out as many as we can. What we are being very careful about doing is we know that there are customers in industry that are still essential workers and still need protection who have been buying these for years.
We’re being very careful to make sure that we keep some of our inventory and are able to serve our long-term customers while also helping the frontline healthcare workers. There are other industrial customers. Just as an example, maybe a gas utility, that in the past they wouldn’t need these to go into people’s homes but now they want them. Even some of our customers who buy our other PPE, not necessarily respiratory, are now looking to add respiratory protection for their workers.
SC: That makes sense. Just on the personal side, we’re all being asked to wear masks now, so if you are an essential employee, even if that wasn’t a traditional piece of PPE that you wore, it certainly is considered now just to be a protective measure.
GM: The other thing that we’ve started to see is lots of face shields. We sell hard hats. The V-Gard is the number-one selling hard hat around the world. Before, you’d mostly wear a face shield for either chemical splash or for impact. The face shields, what we’re seeing now, are more to help with the social distancing and making sure that there’s as little contact from worker to worker as possible. We have seen a ramp-up in that area as well.
SC: I’ve seen a lot of 3D printers, people who might have them for different industries or on the personal side, starting to put together those types of face shields you're talking about. Any thoughts on that? I’m just curious — you guys are professionals at this — what it might be like for someone just putting it out on the side.
GM: I think a lot of the stuff, the technology with 3D printing, is really cutting edge. The problem with it today is the maximum volume you can get out of it. Even though you can make changes on the fly and then print the next one, so it gives you a lot of flexibility, your total output, when you need to start producing 20,000, 200,000, 2 million of something, 3D printing just can’t keep up versus an injection mold machine. To get it started, you can get started a lot quicker with 3D printing. In an urgent time where you need to put something new out, it helps a lot. But longer term, when you're just pumping out product, it’s really hard for that technology to keep up. At least that’s my viewpoint on it.
SC: It’s definitely helping to supplement in the areas that need it, but like you're saying, you guys have the materials and the equipment to mass produce, which those pieces of equipment do not necessarily. What are you guys hearing from industry, your distributors or clients, on the tail end as far as how things are going, the impacts that COVID-19 in general has had with them?
GM: I think, like most people, what you hear more than anything is uncertainty. It’s really difficult to predict when this is going to end, how long it’s going to last, is there going to be upticks again at some of the social distancing measures. What you do see is some industries have just had to completely shut down. Others, we’re hopeful, like construction, in the summer months start to come back a little bit here. It’s cautious optimism that we’re going to start seeing things come back, but it’s also a reality that the economy really has been hit incredibly hard. The oil and gas industry has been hit really hard. And there’s just a lot of people unemployed right now. Step one is getting people back to work and then getting things back to some semblance of normal.
SC: Coming from the Pittsburgh area, you guys are a perfect example of an industry that can’t really wait too long. You’ve got so many bridges out there, and obviously corrosion is a constant concern, so getting people back onto those areas that really need the immediate work and we don’t necessarily have an infrastructure part of the bill coming out either.
GM: You’re absolutely right. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and right now it doesn’t look like there is an infrastructure part. I think step one, at least in Pennsylvania, there’s a red, yellow, green system. We’re starting to see, in some parts of the state, certain construction projects being able to start back up. Hopefully things keep going well and these projects will be able to continue or at least restart.
SC: I didn’t realize you guys had the red, yellow, green. That’s a good idea to identify the projects that need the most immediate work on them, since they all need it at some capacity.
GM: The red, yellow, green, is really more about the counties and how the tracking of the coronavirus is going. Is it going up? Is it going down? And the ability for that county to deal with it. So the governor, once they put you in the yellow, there’s certain things they’re allowed to restart that are more critical but they weren’t on the essential list. That really is the start. So right now there’s quite a few counties in northwest Pennsylvania that are yellow. Here in Pittsburgh, we’re hoping to get into the yellow soon.
SC: You mentioned that some people are not considered essential and might not be able to go to a jobsite right now or work outside of their home right now. Any ideas that you’ve experienced or encountered that might be helpful as far as virtual opportunities go to help those people while they are stuck at home?
GM: The one thing — and this is not really a virtual opportunity, but it’s something that we’ve seen a huge spike in —is we’ve switched a lot of our trainings that are normally in-person to virtual training. Competent person training, confined space trainings. While people are sitting at home. We even have new product webinars, things like that. While people are stuck at home, being able to take some training classes and to get up to speed on some of the latest products and what’s going on — we’ve seen a very large spike in that over the past month or so.
SC: That’s a great idea. I’ve actually seen some on your LinkedIn. You guys have been putting a lot out there for people to access, which is perfect timing for something like that. There’s definitely a need for it, too. At least on the CoatingsPro side, I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve seen pictures of people who are in what would be considered a confined space but they’re not wearing the proper gear for it. Obviously, education is always needed in the industry.
GM: Absolutely. We see that, like you mentioned, in a confined space. A big one that’s been a huge push for us is compliance within fall protection. It’s one of the top cited OSHA violations. It’s also one of the top causes of injury — are falls from heights — and see so many people they’re still not wearing their fall protection. They have their hard hat, like it’s part of their uniform. But fall protections almost a secondary thing. So we’ve been really pushing a campaign to get awareness around fall protection. Then launching these new products that are much more comfortable, really easy to use, so that people want to wear them. And really hoping that that will help drive compliance in the industry and keep people safe.
SC: From what I’ve seen, a huge part of it, like you just said, is comfort. Same thing with eye protection. A lot of people, painters at least, seem to not want to wear them because they fog up of they’re not comfortable or what have you. What else does MSA do? Obviously, you just mentioned fall protection. We’ve been talking about respiratory protection and face shields. Do you guys have anything going on in 2020 that our subscribers should know about?
GM: Some of the big ones are in fall protection. We launched a whole new line of harnesses. One word I would use to describe them is mobility. We talked to a lot of customers, and they said, “I just want to go and do my job and I don’t want to think about wearing this harness all the time.” Changing the way it’s cut and fits on people, it makes it not only comfortable, but you're not constantly rubbing and feeling it on your arm. So our new line of harnesses. Then we spent a lot of time on some of the mechanicals, the retractable device that fits on the back of the harness. The fact that it’s smaller, it’s lighter, it’s not cumbersome, it’s clear so you don’t have to take it apart to inspect it — we’ve been really spending a lot of time on fall protection.
On head protection, what we’ve been seeing a lot of interest in is a climbing-style helmet. There’s the traditional hard hat, which we’re all aware of, with the brim on the front or the brim the whole way around. A climbing-style helmet looks a little bit like a hockey helmet, where there is no brim on the front. It’s a little bit more of a modern look, has a chinstrap on it, and it’s really made to — when you're climbing, if you're looking up a lot, you don’t have the back of the suspension hitting you in the back of the head. It pivots. It’s just a more comfortable experience and an updated, modern style if you're doing a lot of climbing or looking up or things like that.
SC: That would probably be perfect for people in the business of having to go up turbines or any of those offshore infrastructure pieces.
GM: Exactly. That’s where we’ve seen a lot of interest. It’s our H1 Helmet. That, combined with the fall protection. If you take a full set of gear from five, six years ago and compare it to the new stuff, you just feel a lot more free and your equipment’s there to protect you but it’s not hindering what you're doing. That’s really the goal of what we’ve been trying to accomplish over the past few years.
SC: Sounds like a good goal to me. Anything else — what’s going on in the future for you guys? Do you see any changes of how COVID-19 could do to the industry, to MSA, to all of us? Obviously, I keep saying this, we don’t have a crystal ball, but can you see any trends that are already showing?
GM: MSA makes half-mask respirators, full-mask respirators, powered air purifying respirators. I know in the coatings industry there is a lot of respiratory protection. As we spoke earlier, we’re ramping up as fast as we can, but there is a lot of demand. Lead times do start to get pushed out. One thing I certainly would say is, if there’s projects coming up or equipment that’s going to be needed, plan early, order early because in that area, I think from every manufacturer it’s going to be a bit more difficult to get the PPE over the next several months as everyone’s ramping up and our sub-suppliers are ramping up. There’s just a lot of demand.
SC: That’s a good point. There’s also a lot of it that’s dependent on the weather. It’s kind of seasonal. So imagine there’s going to be huge crunch coming soon for all of that equipment. Get your orders in now, I would think!
SC: Any silver linings that you have noticed? I’ve definitely been experiencing an uptick in connecting with people whom I haven’t connected with maybe in years, and it’s been an opportunity to reach out to them. Any other positives you’ve been seeing within the industry that you want to share?
GM: I can certainly say, whether it’s some of our standard industrial customers or the healthcare workers that we’ve been connecting with, the amount of information sharing going on and everyone just wanting to find the best solution and keep people safe and do it the right way. As soon as someone finds something out that can help others, they’re sharing it. Like you said, I feel like there is a lot of very good exchange of information going on across industries and across products. We’re trying to, as much as we can, if we’re in the middle and we can help take something, learn from one industry and help another industry, we’re trying to do that as much as possible.
SC: Thanks, Greg. I appreciate all of your help and your information that you've shared with us so far. Where can people find you if they want to reach out to you?
GM: The best way is on our website. If you want to reach MSA, it’s www.msasafety.com. You’ll see all of the information. If you want to reach out to a specific — whether it’s a distributor, there’s a distributor locator. If it’s customer service, there are emails, phone numbers on there. And you can find all the information right on our website.
SC: Thank you so much for all of your time. Looking forward to talking to you again in the future.
GM: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.
More information on MSA Safety is available at us.msasafety.com.
Editor’s note: Listen to all of the other interviews in CoatingsPro’s COVID-19 podcast series.