Ken Drouillard holding fabric face masks.Ken Drouillard, a professor in UWindsor’s School of the Environment, is heading a research project to help the Windsor-Essex Sewing Force. The group of volunteers is sewing masks for healthcare workers.

UWindsor researchers lend expertise to volunteers sewing masks at home

UWindsor scientists have teamed up with the army of volunteers across Windsor and Essex County sewing masks for local healthcare workers to ensure their goods are top-notch.

The School of the Environment’s Ken Drouillard, who runs the organic analytical lab at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is leading the team to help the Windsor-Essex Sewing Force produce better homemade masks. The team is using its scientific equipment to identify fabrics that keep healthcare workers the safest, running designs past expert panels, and introducing best practices of industrial manufacturing to eliminate some of the less-enjoyable parts of the work while helping the volunteers increase their output.

“We’re trying to establish an entire quality-control system,” said Dr. Drouillard. “What we are trying to do is say, if you are going to build homemade masks, how to do you build the best masks.”

Drouillard has done a review of all the studies related to masks as personal protective equipment. Together with his spouse Rebecca Rudman and fellow Sewing Force founder Karen Harris, they came up with four prototypes they had reviewed by an expert panel comprised of nurses, a physician, an infectious disease specialist, and an occupational health professional. Drouillard designed an evaluation sheet the experts used to score the prototypes on fit, breathability, comfort level, and the level of protection provided.

Homemade masks can be as high as 60 per cent as effective as the N95 masks certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention within the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services. N95 masks, the standard for workers during the COVID pandemic, are in short supply worldwide, causing healthcare facilities to look for alternatives for their workers less vulnerable to being exposed to the virus.

The homemade masks could be used by patients, administrative staff, and other hospital workers not involved in patient care, Drouillard explained.

The primary goal of the project is to standardize the masks and find designs that can be reused through the laundering or routine sterilization done in hospitals.

Drouillard has teamed up with UWindsor geospatial specialist Alice Grgicak-Mannion and biologist Lisa Porter on the project. Grgicak-Mannion has developed an online database and website accessible by the home sewers to track things like requests for masks, inventory, donations, and sources of fabric and notions needed to make the masks.

“The idea is to make the system more efficient,” Drouillard said.

Dr. Porter is a cancer researcher and president of the WE-Spark Health Institutes, a research partnership involving the University of Windsor, Windsor Regional Hospital, Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, and St. Clair College. Porter is acting as the liaison between the project and the hospitals.

The team has also enlisted the help of Elaine Chatwood, a fashion design instructor at St. Clair College. Chatwood is investigating the possibility of using industrial dies to pre-cut the mask patterns. This would not only ensure greater uniformity in the masks produced, but would eliminate one of the peskier tasks for the volunteers sewing them at home.

“We’d like to make this more enjoyable for the sewers,” said Drouillard.

The team will also enlist the expertise of Sharon Lackie, the technician who operates the scanning electron microscope at GLIER. The microscope, which can magnify specimens up to 250,000 times, will be used to analyze fabrics before they are used in masks. Lackie will analyze fabric densities by measuring the number of fibres per area, measure the gaps between the fibres, and test the consistency of fabric over an entire bolt.

The team will also partner with Second Chance CPR, a local company that will test the fit of prototype masks to examine for leaks around the face while also measuring the ability of the masks to filter small aerosol particles.

Drouillard said the goal of the project is to constantly improve the quality of the masks being produced.

“As we stage throughout this project, we’ll introduce innovations to the volunteers,” he said. “We will phase in better design, then better materials, and finally pre-cut fabrics as we go along.”

The researches are also investigating the psycho-social elements of the mask-making initiative, surveying the volunteers to assess how the project has improved messaging, and gauging the personal benefits they derive from being part of the fight against a global pandemic.

The Windsor-Essex Sewing Force is a Facebook group made up of community volunteers. The group has nearly 750 members and growing.

Drouillard chuckles when asked how an environmental scientist who specializes in water pollution and whose research normally involves contaminated sediment and informing guidelines for fish consumption came to head a project involving sewing.

Except for necessary, time-sensitive projects, research at the University has shut down, Drouillard explained. “This closure has given us all a chance to self-reflect and identify ways we can put our talents to use in ways we never imagined.”

The research project is funded by the University of Windsor’s Office of Research and Innovation and the WE-Spark Health Institute. It is one of 21 local COVID-related research projects WE-Spark has financially supported through its COVID-19 Rapid Response grant program.

—Sarah Sacheli