The study, performed by the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, found that workers donning FFP3 respirator masks were less likely to contract or pass on coronavirus than fluid resistant surgical masks.
The results indicate that the more tightly-worn FFP3 masks offer better protection than fluid resistant PPE masks or their fabric counterparts which are more common amongst the general population and not typically classed as a form of PPE.
Published in a research paper online, the findings have not yet been peer-reviewed – with scientists adding that further research of the study’s results will be required before they can be fully confirmed.
"Healthcare workers – particularly those working on COVID-19 wards – are much more likely to be exposed to coronavirus, so it’s important we understand the best ways of keeping them safe” said Mark Ferris, one of the researchers behind the study.
What are FFP3 masks?
Filtering Face Piece 3 (FFP3) masks are respirator masks which commonly feature a filter or valve to help wearers breathe through the slightly thicker, tighter fabric and protect them from exposure to airborne particles.
This means while functioning in the same manner as any other type of face mask, FFP3 masks are often considered more reliable in protecting wearers against the airborne virus and preventing the spread to others.
NHS workers and representative bodies such as the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association have been calling on the UK Government to supply all NHS staff with higher grade protection.
Dr Michael Weekes of Cambridge University’s Department of Medicine, who likewise worked on the study, added: “Our data suggest there’s an urgent need to look at the PPE offered to healthcare workers on the frontline.
"Upgrading the equipment so that FFP3 masks are offered to all healthcare workers caring for patients with Covid-19 could reduce the number of infections, keep more hospital staff safe and remove some of the burden on already stretched healthcare services caused by absence of key staff due to illness.
"Vaccination is clearly also an absolute priority for anyone who hasn’t yet taken up their offer.”
What are the best masks to wear for Covid?
The findings from the study indicate that the FFP3 masks can be expected to deliver more protection for workers in cutting down direct infection rates of airborne covid-19 particles.
Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge saw an up to 100% fall in hospital-acquired coronavirus infections after upgrading face masks for NHS staff working on its covid-19 wards.
Dr Chris Illingworth from the MRC Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge, said: “Before the face masks were upgraded, the majority of infections among healthcare workers on the Covid-19 wards were likely due to direct exposure to patients with Covid-19.
“Once FFP3 respirators were introduced, the number of cases attributed to exposure on Covid-19 wards dropped dramatically – in fact, our model suggests that FFP3 respirators may have cut ward-based infection to zero.”
Because they attach more tightly and securely to the face, FFP3 respirators are also thought to offer greater protection as they are less likely to become loose or fall off, as has been found with other masks like fluid resistant surgical masks.
These were the most widely available and relied upon pieces of protective gear for NHS workers amid a mass shortage of PPE last year.
While protecting wearers against droplets and fluids, they also can feature gaps and leaks through which those wearing them can often be exposed to airborne particles.
Fabric face masks, meanwhile, can help to protect you from infecting others and staying safe while social distancing in public, but are not classed as an official form of PPE which can be worn by health workers.