Nursing union threatens to sue health department over 'unsafe' KN95 masks

The KN95 face masks being worn by thousands of SA health workers treating Covid-19 patients have all failed safety testing at the University of Cape Town.
The KN95 face masks being worn by thousands of SA health workers treating Covid-19 patients have all failed safety testing at the University of Cape Town.
Image: 123rf/boumenjapet

The Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa) has called for the immediate withdrawal of at least 12 different brands of KN95 face masks.

This comes after a recent study found the masks, worn by thousands of health-care workers as protection against Covid-19, were unsafe.

Sunday Times Daily reported the KN95 masks – mainly made in China – flooded into SA amid a pandemic-related worldwide shortage of the highly regulated N95 masks.

None of the masks tested at the University of Cape Town offered the protection provided by the “gold standard” N95 mask, according to the results of a study published in the SA Medical Journal.

Denosa said the findings of the study were concerning, and the body was now demanding the health department immediately withdraw the masks from high-risk clinical areas. It has threatened to take legal action should the department refuse to do so.

"In case the department is refusing to withdraw the masks, Denosa is consulting with its lawyers with the view to legally challenge and prevent the department of health from giving the KN95 masks to its members (nurses) working in Covid-19 units and other high-risk areas until the department produces proof their masks meet the safety standards," said spokesperson Sibongiseni Delihlazo.

The union said its concern over the safety of the masks arose from an initial surge in Covid-19 infections among health workers.  

"Many health workers, such as nurses, doctors and community health-care workers, contracted the coronavirus at the time when there were many questions over the quality of personal protection equipment (PPE) government uses. Many of the health-care workers succumbed to the coronavirus. 

"Many countries returned consignments of PPE on the basis of poor quality. SA did not have widely known cases where it returned consignments for poor quality," said Delihlazo.

It was not immediately clear if the national health department would recall the masks.

Approached for comment, department spokesperson Popo Maja asked for the study outcomes to be shared with them. There was no response by the time of publishing. 

"In the meantime, Denosa urges all its shop stewards in facilities across the country to up their defence guard and demand proof of safety if nurses working in high-risk areas like Covid-19 units are given the KN95 masks," said Delihlazo.

The study has recommended against the use of the KN95 masks, and said as piles of boxes of these masks remain in institutions, the masks could be moved to other highly infectious and risky areas like TB units.   

"Denosa does not trust that government will not move these masks elsewhere once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed," he said.  

Delihlazo said the department needed to beef up the number of health workers in facilities to deal with the second wave of the pandemic.

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