All About NIOSH

All About NIOSH

Meet the agency that helps protect workers and their lungs

February 12, 2021 | Published by O2

Over the course of the pandemic we’ve had a lot of terms thrown our way – N95, ASTM, NIOSH, PPE, FFP, ventilator, respirator (we could go on) – in some ways, many of us have become experts in this new pandemic vocabulary. Often confusing and always technical, these terms and acronyms are filled with ratings and classifications that can be confounding to even the experts. We here at O2 believe it’s important to understand what they all mean, and how they translate to our daily lives.

By now you’ve probably heard of N95s – respirators that filter out 95% of airborne particles. But who gets to decide which respirators are worthy of this classification? Enter NIOSH. NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It’s a part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and is the key federal agency devoted to researching workplace health and safety in the United States. From its inception, the agency set out to make recommendations for occupational standards, determine safe levels of exposure to toxic materials, and conduct research and training around workplace health and safety.

A new standard for workplace safety

For much of the early 20th century, the federal agency responsible for worker safety in the United States was the Public Health Service Office of Industrial Hygiene and Sanitation, established in 1914; however, constant reorganization and a lack of funding left it without a coherent strategy. To provide a more cohesive blueprint for worker health and safety President Richard Nixon signed NIOSH into law alongside the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in December of 1970. Though they came into being at the same time, OSHA’s responsibilities vary from those of NIOSH, and has a greater focus on enforcing workplace safety and the laws surrounding it.

The creation of these two agencies came on the heels of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and The Appalachian Laboratory for Occupational Respiratory Diseases, created in 1967, which attempted to control health disasters like TB and Black Lung. Until the 1960s, there had been little public knowledge of the need for these and other attempts to regulate workplace safety. In the decades prior, U.S. monopoly corporations had successfully crafted the impression that workplace diseases didn’t exist.

Despite gains in worker safety, throughout the 1960s, the rise of the service sector and major economic expansion had led to an increase in workplace injury and death. With pressure from powerful unions, newfound environmental consciousness, and movements toward social justice, NIOSH and OSHA were born.


Now that we’ve learned a bit about the history of NIOSH and how it came to be, you might be wondering: what does a workplace safety agency have to do with masks and respirators? As it would turn out, quite a bit.

You may have heard the term NIOSH-approved when searching for a mask or respirator. NIOSH-approved comes from NIOSH’s air filtration rating — the system used to classify filtering respirators in the United States. This system provides a framework for the quality and performance standards of respirators in the United States. Since millions of workers across many industries rely on respirators every day, this classification system is vital to the safety of workers across the United States. In fact, all respirators used in a workplace setting in the United States must be tested and approved by NIOSH before they can be used. Of the hundreds of applications NIOSH receives each year, only 65% of them receive approval. The specifications for NIOSH approval are quite rigid and require a comprehensive approval package including performance tests, drawings, packaging and labels, user instructions, and many other details.

N95 vs R99 vs P100 — what’s the difference?

NIOSH’s air filtration rating has nine classifications, based on a respirator’s ability to protect the wearer from dust and liquid droplets in the air. They can be split into three groups: N, R, and P. These letters indicate how likely a respirator is to deteriorate when exposed to oil-based aerosols (such as lubricants, glycerol, and paints). N stands for Not resistant to oils; R for resistant to oils; finally, P stands for oil-proof, meaning the filters can be reused. The numbers 95, 99, and 100 correspond to the respirator’s filtration ability. That is, 95%, 99%, and 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 microns in size and larger.

From the CDC’s Respiratory Protection Infographics page:

These ratings help provide workers in the United States with a clear guide to choosing which respirator is right for them. With the rise of COVID-19, and as thousands of respirators have inundated the market globally, NIOSH’s air filtration rating has become even more important for workers to know which respirator they should choose.

Adapting to a changing workplace

As technology, demographics, and political forces shift, workers around the world are being asked to adapt to new realities. The past year has served to further exacerbate these changes. With these new realities come new challenges for workers. Some NIOSH researchers have begun to ask for a more holistic view of workplace safety – one that takes into account a worker’s entire well-being: a “public health approach,” rather than a “labor approach.”

Regardless of the approach it takes toward worker safety, it’s clear that NIOSH will need to continue to adapt to the new needs and challenges that workers face in order to protect their bodies, minds, and lungs well into the future.


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