Face masks that allow people to work more safely in close proximity in Covid-rich environments such as intensive care units and meat plants have been developed by Irish researchers.

The sealed mask, similar to a scuba-diving mask, has been developed by the Irish Manufacturing Research Centre (IMR) – an industrial research center in Mullingar – along with researchers at Cork’s Tyndall Institute and business consultant Dave Manning, who has now set up a company to sell the masks.

The masks, which are reusable and can be sterilized, offer considerably more protection than existing options according to the Mullingar research center.

Manning has now established a company, Pmask, based at the Tyndall, with fellow businessman Joe Joyce, to sell the masks.

Apart from meat plants and hospitals, the company is targeting other manufacturing environments where workers need to operate in close proximity as well as other environments where spatial separation is a challenges, such as hairdressers, dental clinics and even flight cockpits.

The initial trigger for the research came from the number of medical staff succumbing to coronavirus.

“We realized that one of the big challenges internationally was in the ventilator space. The viral load in the ICU units was particularly high,” says Barry Kennedy, chief executive of IMR and a former quality control expert at Intel.

“And there was a reason why the doctors and nurses were getting particularly sick. The way intubation was going on in ICU units, very sick patients were breathing a lot of the viral loads into those areas.

“So, we looked at lots of face mask alternatives to try and solve that challenge,” Kennedy says.

The solution they settled on was a modified diving mask. Initially designed for patients in ICU, it was a sealed mask “which meant when you breathe in and breathe out, you didn’t breathe the virus out into the room.”

“Then we began to have a dialogue together and we said these masks could do more than just help in the ICU unit,” Kennedy says.

“We took basically a HEPA filter [a common air purifier filter that forces air through a fine mesh trapping harmful particles] and made a modification to this face mask. It looks like a Darth Vader mask for want of a better word when you see it but you can breathe in and breathe out and be fully sealed and protected from getting Covid-19.”

The device has since been certified and units are being tested in a range of environments. Kennedy says this includes manufacturing organizations where two employees are working in close proximity to one another, citing meat factories, which are a particular bed of infection.

‘Labor intensive’
“It’s interesting when you learn the reasons why. First of all it’s labor intensive, it’s in a cold environment, moist environment that is a particular place where this virus seems to thrive.

“So, if you can wear a face mask and if you think these diving masks that are designed to be in cold water and you can modify them with a filtering system that allows you to breathe in and out safely, then why wouldn’t every employee not be wearing one of those in a meat-processing facility?

“It’s not something you’d wear as a fashion statement but it’s something to protect yourself in that kind of environment.”