European alert for defective 3M asbestos masks (European Trade Union Institute)

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) recently passed on a French-initiated alert to all its European affiliates regarding defective Proflow asbestos masks manufactured by the US 3M corporation. These protective masks are the most widely used masks on asbestos removal sites throughout Europe. In France alone, they are regularly worn by more than 25,000 workers.

The motor pulsing asbestos-contaminated air through the mask’s filter system could present rpm fluctuations during use. As the 160-litre per minute airflow required by the legislation and necessary for the proper functioning of the device is not constantly ensured, workers wearing this mask are no longer effectively protected against inhaling asbestos fibres.

According to Libération, the French newspaper revealing the affair to the general public, malfunctions of these powered air respirators were first reported to 3M management in May 2018 by one of its employees, herself alerted via the mask maintenance centres. She reported that “90 of 100 Proflow masks received have a problem with insufficient airflow” and “that there is no alarm when the airflow drops below 160 L/min”. Sidelined by her employer and faced with the inaction of 3M, which claimed that its masks were approved and therefore perfectly safe, this whistleblower turned to the French National Commission on Ethics and Alerts in Public Health and the Environment (cnDAspe). The latter opened an inquiry in December 2020 (see its Alert 133).

The cnDAspe informed the Direction Générale du Travail (DGT) – the French supervisory authority with jurisdiction over PPE – which, after investigation, published a notice in October 2021. This states that 3M has modified the usage instructions for Proflow asbestos masks and has been fitting them with a low airflow indicator since July 2020. The notice prohibited the use of masks without this device.

As a result of the alert passed on by the ETUC, the Dutch Trade Union Confederation (FNV) recommended to all users in the Netherlands to immediately stop working with 3M Proflow asbestos masks manufactured before introduction of the airflow indicator.

At a recent meeting held by the FNV with 3M’s Benelux managers, in which one of the ETUI’s experts was able to participate, the manufacturer firmly denied any quality problems potentially affecting its asbestos protective masks. However, many questions remained unanswered: what had happened to the Proflow asbestos masks without the airflow indicator ? Were they still in use? Had they been recalled by the manufacturer throughout Europe? What was the precision of the airflow indicator ? What about the alarm (apart from those for clogged filters or low battery level) warning a user of a possible drop in airflow below 160 L/min during mask use?

With the cnDAspe and DGT inquiries ongoing, it is recommended that this alert be passed on to all asbestos workers using these masks on asbestos removal sites in Europe. Pending further information and in application of the precautionary principle, the FNV recommendations should be applied throughout Europe.