Ford Motor Co. is rolling out clear face masks with N95-level filtration, in what could be the largest-scale effort to produce masks specifically designed to improve communication while offering medical-grade protection against the coronavirus.
Masks make it more difficult to hear what the wearer is saying and impossible for those who rely on lip reading. The ability to read facial expressions also is crucial, particularly for those in fields such as education, health care and travel, as most communication is nonverbal.
“When you think about interactions in a work environment, and the people who might be … relying on lips to read expressions and understand day-to-day work, that becomes a challenge. It literally takes away another sense from somebody,” said Jim Baumbick, the Ford vice president overseeing its personal protective equipment manufacturing effort.
The auto giant has been producing face masks, ventilators and face shields since March, through the launch of its Project Apollo, which organized Ford engineers to work with health officials and devise product solutions to deal with the coronavirus pandemic just days after the first wave of lockdowns. Since then, Ford has given away tens of millions of masks and is now turning proceeds from its health-care products toward manufacturing the clear respirators and air filtration kits, Baumbick said.
The new masks, which the company announced last week, will be washable and feature anti-fog technology, Baumbick said. They will be available this spring, pending N95 certification, but spokesman Mike Levine said pricing and distribution details were not yet available. Ford also unveiled a DIY air filtration kit for indoor spaces to reduce particle spread.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended the public use cloth masks and reserve N95 masks — which offer a much higher level of protection against the coronavirus — for health-care and other front-line workers. But the United States has had a shortage of N95 masks for months, and now the spread of coronavirus variants has prompted some public health experts to recommend doubling up face coverings or donning medical-grade masks.
Public health experts consider the face coverings a crucial line of defense against the virus that has killed more than 464,000 Americans and infected 27 million in the past year.
But for the millions of Americans with hearing loss, masks can make communication harder. Advocacy groups for the deaf or hard of hearing have encouraged the use of homemade face masks with clear windows over the mouth. Though they can be found online on Amazon and Etsy, Ford will be one of the first U.S. manufacturers producing them at scale.
Rebecca Hull recently launched a clear mask giveaway through the Independence Center, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities in Colorado Springs. But Ford’s rollout is the first clear mask she has heard of with N95-level filtration — and it’s a technology she is hopeful will become the norm in the health-care field, even post-pandemic.
“The Independence Center’s clear mask giveaway project grew out of my frustration as a Deaf individual and a lip-reader in a masked society,” Hull wrote in an email. “Real change occurs when we take the time to educate that disability is not the problem. Instead, it is the lack of accessible or alternative resources that creates a barrier. The example of masks during a pandemic illustrates this point.”
Bonnie Sachs, a neuropsychologist at the Wake Forest School of Medicine who works with older patients and research participants, said the clinic often uses clear masks to improve communication while taking exams that test memory.
“Many older adults have some form of hearing loss and may rely heavily on nonverbal cues like facial expression and lip-reading,” Sachs said. “When they can’t see your face as well or they can’t read your lips as well, that may be a challenge because they can’t hear you accurately to complete the cognitive testing.”