Claudio Dente is a 40-year veteran of the safety industry, and he’s never seen anything like the crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a matter of months it’s wreaked havoc with the PPE market.

Claudio is the president and founder (in 2004) of Dentec Safety Specialists, headquartered in the Toronto suburb of Newmarket, Ontario. Dentec’s manufacturing facility is in Lenexa, Kansas. In 2014 Dentec expanded by acquiring a respiratory protection business.

It’s a cliché -- “Necessity is the mother of invention” – but it describes Claudio’s response to the crisis. When COVID-19 broke out in January of this year, China cut off Dentec’s supply of N95 respirators. The challenge: to help workers continue to work using respiratory protection when needed while allowing frontline healthcare employees access to disposable respirators, where emergency demand was huge.

Claudio sought out alternative solutions for industrial workers to replace N95 disposable respirators. So he experimented. He took Dentec Safety’s rubber masks and filters, and wanted to compare against its own brand of disposable respirators and competitive styles. While wearing each styles of the masks, he walked 1,000 steps at a brisk pace. He wanted to generate enough physical exertion to simulate hard work. As he went through these paces, he looked for the respirator’s comfort against the face, and the rubber mask’s comfort versus the disposable respirators.

“When I touched the rubber to my face, I couldn’t believe the comfortable feel. Wearing the disposable respirators was brutal in comparison to our rubber style reusable respirator. I said, ‘This is alarming’,” he recalls.

The difference? When you wear Dentec Safety’s rubber half-mask respirator, you draw air in through the filter and blow it out through an exhalation valve. “This is OK, it’s not uncomfortable at all,” says Claudio. “I noticed when I blew hard, I couldn’t build up heat inside the mask in comparison to the disposable respirators. Heat build-up inside the mask is a major problem with respirator use. When I put on the disposable mask, it felt terrible. Disposable masks have a synthetic fabric with coarseness to it; it’s rigid when you first touch it to your face. With no exhalation valve, heat built up quickly in a disposable mask; I noticed this after only taking 15-20 paces. I said, ‘This is brutal. Think of a construction worker in hot weather, working hard, breathing hard. The rubber mask feels better against the face, and is less fatiguing. There’s an enormous difference.”

Claudio tried a disposable mask with an exhalation valve and says it was 50-percent better than a disposable with no exhalation valve but not near as comfortable as Dentec Safety’s rubber mask. “Wow, what a difference with the rubber mask,” he says.

Claudio realized through his exercise that he could convince customers that rubber masks were “absolutely more comfortable and more productive.”

More productive? “People misuse disposable respirators,” he says. “Say you’re wearing a disposable, grinding concrete block for 20 minutes. You take a break and take the mask off. Then you can’t remember where you left it. Even someone who is fairly responsible will go through two or three disposable respirators a day.”

Dentec Safety Specialty developed its alternative solution to disposable respirators: the Series 100 silicone half mask with filter; the Series 300 thermoplastic mask with filter; and the Series 400 elastomeric mask with filter. The filter reduces breathing resistance, and it doesn’t load up as quickly as a disposable due to the filter material. Also the filter is mounted into a filter cover holder. “This is the magic,” says Claudio. “The cover holder protects the filter, enabling you to change the filter according to a filter change schedule, or when breathing resistance becomes more difficult. So we have a more economical and more productive solution. Remember, the cost of disposable respirators has gone up in the past 90 days by 4-10 times. We are able to maintain same cost.”

There is also a safety perspective to consider. “You need to fit test a respirator before using and fit check it every time you go back to work. You cannot do a positive or negative fit test with a disposable respirator because the entire mask is breathable. You can fit check our half mask respirators every time. So from a safety standpoint, employees are better protected, you get a fit, better protection, and the alternative solution is more economical.

And a sustainability issue. “Where do disposable masks go when you need to replace them? The environmental savings of our rubber half masks is enormous,” Claudio says

Why offer three choices of alternative masks?

“We offer three choices at three price points,” says Claudio. “Silicone and thermoplastic masks have been around a long time. Silicone by far is more comfortable, it’s better for painting applications, it’s easier to clean, and it is a softer material to the face. All our masks have 95 percent of the same features. The silicone mask has more comfort features, such as wider and softer straps, and a larger sealing area that provides additional comfort.” We also have a unique way our cartridges mount to the mask called the Saf-Twist cartridge attachment system.  Because our cartridges are round and the inhalation hole on the back is off centered, we can mount the cartridge in three different positions.  If you need great visibility, mount the cartridge in position 1, it will also fit under many grinding or welding shields. Position 2 and 3 allow you to position the cartridge depending on the type of grinding or welding shield you may be using for the application.  Its simple 1, 2, 3.  No other respirator in the world offers this feature.

Dentec is ramping up production at its Lenexa Kansas factory. “We have more staff, we’ve gone to six- and seven-day work weeks. We’re working overtime. We’ve expanded the molding operations and have ordered more molds – all to make product faster,” says Claudio.

When the pandemic broke out, Claudio says most respirator buyers thought the crisis would clear up in a month. “At about the six-week mark, our sales just exploded,” he says. Claudio sees demand for alternative N95 respirator solutions continuing into 2021, however this event has caused the end user to consider replacing disposable respirators with Dentec Safety’s reusable N95 half mask solution.  Its more comfortable, safer and more economical , Claudio says. “Until we get a vaccine, social distancing will remain a challenge,” he says. He also sees the supply shortage continuing. “NIOSH has published a list of defective Chinese defective masks. After announcing the first list of some 120 names, two weeks later NIOSH added another 51 new companies to this list. In Canada, a recall of these respirators has been ordered. They are counterfeit products and they do not offer he protection they claimed.”

“It’s sad and unfortunate, but it took the pandemic to rethink N95 respiratory protection and move it forward,” Claudio says.