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Clear N95 face masks designed by Ford could be huge for hearing impaired, teachers

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 3, 2021

Ford has received patent-pending approval for a new clear respirator it expects to certify to N95 standards of virus elimination. The transparent, low-cost and reusable respirators enable a full range of human expression, allowing people to better communicate with each other and aiding those with hearing impairments to help read lips that are today blocked by conventional cloth and filtered masks.  (Ford Motor Company)
Ford has received patent-pending approval for a new clear respirator it expects to certify to N95 standards of virus elimination. The transparent, low-cost and reusable respirators enable a full range of human expression, allowing people to better communicate with each other and aiding those with hearing impairments to help read lips that are today blocked by conventional cloth and filtered masks. (Ford Motor Company)
By Phoebe Wall Howard Tribune News Service

DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. has designed and created clear N95 face masks so that hearing-impaired people can read lips while protecting themselves from COVID-19, the company announced Tuesday.

A patent is pending for the new design, which is awaiting federal approval to qualify for N95 status from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The low-cost, reusable respirators may supplement or replace the use of cloth masks that block facial expressions from view as mask wearers seek protection from the increased threat of new coronavirus variants. In addition to the hearing impaired, these masks could be used by people who depend on facial expressions to better do their jobs, like teachers.

Face masks many people wear today often do not form a good seal against the skin. Respirators should be airtight on the face and protect the wearer and the people nearby. This new design by Ford filters exhalation, protecting the people around the face mask user.

Ford has also made and distributed cloth surgical masks.

“One of the things that’s missing during the pandemic is the power of a smile,” said Jim Baumbick, Ford vice president, Enterprise Product Line Management and leader of the company’s personal protection equipment manufacturing effort, in a news release.

“This clear respirator promises to improve interactions between neighbors, at the store and for those who have hearing impairments.”

An immigrant’s legacy

Will Brick, design prototype lead at D-Ford, the company’s human-centered design studio, designed the clear mask.

“I was interested in making something that was reusable, that didn’t fog somebody’s glasses,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “I was looking in the mirror at the shop to see how it would fit on the face and realized I could see myself smiling.”

The goal, initially, was to design a transparent reusable N95 respirator for health care providers – an idea inspired by discussions with doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists, Brick said. “So you could share facial expressions and bring some humanity back to our conversations and encounters with people. A simple human thing like a smile has been absent so many months now.”

Brick is from a family that has worked in the auto industry for more than a century. His great-grandfather, Fred Manhire, moved from working the tin mines in Cornwall, England, to working mines in the Upper Peninsula, known for its copper. Then he headed down to Detroit to work at the Rouge plant when it opened. He did a number of jobs, like putting steering wheels on the Model A.

Now Brick, 41, of Berkley is part of a team doing final advanced prototyping. Not only would these be helpful to hearing-impaired people, but Ford also learned that children with autism have a more difficult time communicating when they can’t see facial expressions.

Reusable N95 respirators could provide medical protection as well as ease demand for disposable masks and reduce waste, he said.

Ford plans to do continued testing this winter in hopes of making the masks available in the spring. It is unclear at this time whether they will be sold or donated.

Promise from Bill Ford

Bill Ford, executive chairman of the company, has committed to donating 100 million masks by mid-2021. The company recently increased its commitment to 120 million. These are medical-grade face masks primarily for at-risk communities, in addition to supplies being made available at Ford dealerships across the country. The Ford Fund has played a key role in distribution.

Ford cleared approximately $50 million in profit from its government contract to make ventilators this year to replenish the national stockpile, in addition to small sales of PPE, including isolation gowns, Mark Truby, chief communications officer at Ford, said in November.

In addition to filling the government contract order for ventilators, the company has made face masks, face shields, gowns and respirators. Most of the face shields were donated to first responders and health care workers throughout the nation.

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