PPE considerations for law enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic

Agencies should follow fit testing requirements, and provide training on the donning and doffing of personal protective equipment


While the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is not new in law enforcement, the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic has placed a renewed focus on its importance. 

Officers tasked with enforcing quarantine or isolation orders face an increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus, making the use of PPE by law enforcement officers increasingly common. [1]

While simply throwing on some gloves and a mask may seem better than going without, officers and agencies should be aware that the improper use of PPE can offer a false sense of security and, in some cases, even increase the risk of exposure.  

Richardson police officer Austin Galloway is pictured at the start of his shift, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Mask and gloves are part of their daily routine amid concerns of the COVID-19 crisis. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Richardson police officer Austin Galloway is pictured at the start of his shift, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Mask and gloves are part of their daily routine amid concerns of the COVID-19 crisis. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

PPE donning/doffing training

Agencies should follow fit testing requirements, and provide training on the donning and doffing of personnel protective equipment. This can help provide officers with the confidence that the PPE provided to them will work in the given situation and that they have it on appropriately.  

Agencies should educate officers regarding the risk of self-contamination, which can be especially problematic when donning and doffing PPE. [1]

Hand washing before donning PPE and before and after doffing PPE is an easy and effective preventative measure.

Depending on the level of protection required, it may be best to use the buddy method to help in the donning process to prevent rips from occurring in protective coveralls and to assist in taping zippers and cuffs.

When donning a mask or respirator, individuals should use caution to prevent elastic straps from becoming entangled in hair, so it will be easier to remove later and make sure that facial areas are properly covered and effectively sealed. Facial hair may also prevent a proper seal on some types of respiratory protection.

Doffing can present additional risks in a situation where a person is “uncomfortable and tired” and hastily removes personal protective equipment. [2] Improperly removing gloves can cause inadvertent self-contamination by grabbing the outside of the glove on one hand with the other unprotected bare hand to remove it.

Any used PPE should be disposed of safely and in a way that would prevent cross-contamination. If your community is facing shortages and you need to reuse PPE, consider laundering cloth masks or placing N95 or surgical masks in paper bags to dry out. Find more information about reusing PPE here.  

Officers should be familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of different types of available PPE and have an understanding of agency policies and practices relating to what PPE should be used in different situations.

PPE regulations

Equally important is for agencies to stay aware and properly informed of regulations related to the use of PPE.

Simply seeing something in the media or hearing something from a fellow first responder often does not provide sufficient information for an informed decision about disregarding regulatory requirements or protocols. For example, recently and in direct response to the COVID-19 crisis in the healthcare industry, the Department of Labor loosened enforcement requirements relating to annual fit-testing for N95 masks. These temporary changes currently only apply to healthcare providers who are providing direct care of patients with known or suspected COVID-19 and do not relate to the required initial fit-testing of N95 masks or training on donning and doffing the masks. Thus, these changes are limited at this time to one industry and one aspect of the regulations.

Failure to fully comprehend changes like this could not only endanger the safety of an individual because a fit test might be overlooked but may place some agencies at risk of failing to comply with applicable regulations.

Current federal and state occupational health and safety protocols have been in place to protect the safety of first responders long before the current pandemic. These protocols are designed not only to protect the individual from infection but also work to protect the individual's family and the community from secondary exposure to an individual who became contaminated from their failure to properly use PPE. As such, agencies should be making reasonable efforts to confirm that available equipment meets the needs of the individual and is properly fitted, and that appropriate training is provided.

Additional information can be found on the Federal Department of Labor website and/or state workplace safety websites. For information on the proper donning and doffing of N95 masks, this instructional video linked to on the federal OSHA website may be useful:

Additional resources and sample policies regarding PPE for your agency are available at Lexipol’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Learning and Policy Center

References

1. MacIntyre CR, et al. Risk mitigation of inadvertent exposure to biothreats to front line law enforcement. Global Biosecurity, 2020, 1(3).

2. Chughtai AA, Chen X, Macintyre CR. Risk of self-contamination during doffing of personal protective equipment. American Journal of Infection Control, 2018, 46 (2) 1329–1334.

Bibliography

Loeb M, et al. Surgical Mask vs N95 Respirator for preventing influenza among health care workers: A randomized trial. JAMA. 2009; 302(17):1865–1871.

Sandaradura I, et al. A close shave? Performance of P2/N95 respirators in healthcare workers with facial hair: results of the BEARDS (BEnchmarking Adequate Respiratory DefenceS) study. Journal of Hospital Infection, 2020, Jan 21.

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