Agriculture wasn’t the target market when Peter Whitby and Richard Szasz first hit upon the idea of creating a better air filtration mask while on a trip to China. In fact, O2 Canada had it sights set firmly on Asia and its notoriously polluted air as the best place to make a difference in how people breathe.
But as it turns out, the Waterloo start-up’s comfortable masks with perfect seal are ideal for dusty, smelly farm environments — and their sales are growing in agriculture, particularly since Farmers Farmacy came on board as a distributor earlier this year.
Why it matters: Farmers and farm workers are exposed to dust, fumes and chemicals that can affect their breathing, but many disease symptoms aren’t readily apparent and health issues can take years to develop.
“When we travelled to China, we didn’t see sun for a week due to pollution and when we saw a lot of the masks they are wearing, we were surprised there’s not something nice that filters the air,” said Whitby. “So we started as a clothing company and made a jacket with a mask that has evolved into just the mask.”
Their goal, according to Whitby, was the perfect seal. Luckily, they were based in a city with a lot of engineering talent and the University of Waterloo’s Green Energy and Pollution Control Research Lab nearby. They set to work studying existing masks, like the 3M disposable masks sold at hardware stores and surgical masks, to see how they could come up with something better.
“We did testing at UW, studied every mask and learned that they leak between the nose and mouth,” he said. “Air takes the path of least resistance, like water, and the ergonomics don’t work.”
The resulting O2 Canada mask uses Japanese medical grade silicone to create a perfect seal so air must go through the filter, which has an electrostatic charge to attract even small particles. It’s very soft and light on the face and has adjustable silicone straps for comfortable wear. The mask itself is long-lasting, with only the filters needing regular replacement.
Although the mask was selling in Asia, a look at their sales led to the discovery that they actually had customers right here at home — poultry and asparagus farmers in southwestern Ontario — who were buying filters pretty regularly. That led to a booth at the National Poultry Show in London, where sales were brisk, according to marketing manager Aaron McFerran.
“Farmers are hungry for innovation in this space. They understand the dangers of what they’re breathing, but there hasn’t been a better solution until now than something that isn’t working and people don’t wear,” he said.
Asparagus growers Koteles Farms and Rocks Mill Farms near Tillsonburg have been using the masks for their workers who harvest a crop that grows in very sandy soils.
“They liked them because they were more comfortable than them regular face masks and the guys said they didn’t get hot on their faces or sweaty on a hot day,” said Elvira Koteles of Rocks Mill Farms.
According to the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, farmers and farm workers have a significantly higher risk of breathing problems due to the environments they work in. The good news, however, is that respiratory diseases due to agricultural exposure are preventable, either by reducing exposure or wearing personal protective equipment like masks.
An O2 Canada mask and three filters sell for $69.95, with the most common filter lasting for about two weeks of daily use before needing replacement. Replacement filter packs range from $5 to $10.
Based in Kitchener’s Communitech, the company now has its own lab and staff team to work on product development, including masks for contractors, one that can absorb gases like ammonia in livestock barns, and one that can accommodate oxygen for medical uses.
“We never thought of Canada as our market, but we’ve learned that our market is actually places with dusty, bad air like industrial or farm type settings,” Whitby added. “If you are breathing better air, you perform better and you live better.”