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Nathaniel Cortese

SFU Student Undergraduate
Science › Biological Sciences
Co-operative Education

Position Title
Experience Details
Introduction + Preparation
Previous Experience

I worked in a previous co-op as a Laboratory Assistant at ALS Global Environmental for about 8 months. I went on to work in Dr. Ralph Pantophlet’s laboratory as a SFU Undergraduate Research Student for about 8 months. Over the past 5 years, I volunteered at hospitals, such as Burnaby General, Eagle Ridge, and Ridge Meadows Hospital. I took part in a variety of different departments, which included the Information Desk and a Wayfinder, Acute Care for Elderly (ACE), Emergency Room, Manor Activities and Events, and Virtual & Essential Visits.

Preparation Tips for Future Students

Since the majority of this job involves social interactions, people skills and professionalism are top priorities. Being able to understand the importance of N95 Respirator Fit Testing is essential, as you will be frequently explaining and asked about how they work and why it is important by many staff members. Following protocols and guidelines are a big part, as this includes maintaining hygiene and sterile equipment, following proper testing procedures, and paying attention to detail.

Making sure you have strong communication skills and getting your point across in a clear and concise manner is crucial for staff to understand the process and feel comfortable with you leading the fit test. Being able to solve problems while portraying professionalism are very important qualities to have as there will be many times where problems occur.

Collaboration is key in being successful in this role, as you are part of a team that requires your coordination to plan fit test sessions at various locations around Vancouver, Richmond, or North Vancouver. It is also important to collaborate with team members so that there can be appropriate coverage of fit testers to carry out the fit tests on a schedule works best for the team.

Fit Testing Setup at a West Vancouver Community Centre
Fit Testing Setup at a West Vancouver Community Centre
During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

The first week consisted of several in-person meetings and training sessions with the safety advisors who are supervising you and the Fit Test team. The first few days they reviewed the organization’s mission, values, goals, and roles in providing for the healthcare workers. They then focused on explaining the equipment we would be using during the fit tests, as well as which respirator model to use and how to use each one.

As part of the organization’s orientation, there are a lot of online modules required to complete by the end of the first week. This includes readings and quizzes educating you on hand hygiene, professionalism and confidentiality, and violence prevention.

There will be scheduled fit testing sessions almost every day where you will have staff members coming in to get their fit tests done. For the first month, there will be at least one supervisor to watch and assist, as well as provide feedback after each fit test. This will give you a great amount of training as there will be many opportunities to practice, learn, receive feedback, and try again all session long.

Within the first few weeks, you will be sent to different locations with one of your supervisors to tour different sites. This includes Vancouver General Hospital, Richmond Hospital, UBC Hospital, Lions Gate Hospital, and various community health centres and clinics.

Day to Day

A typical day begins with arriving at the fit testing site with enough time to be able to set up the equipment to make sure everything is ready for the first staff member. I usually review the day’s schedule to see the booked appointments for the rest of the day, and if there were any messages or emails from staff members or colleagues that stood out and required immediate attention.

Once the staff members start coming in, most of my time is conducting fit testing. This includes explaining the fit testing procedure beforehand, its importance, and making sure they are comfortable and feel safe during the process. It is very important to show them the proper way to don and doff the respirators, as well as being able to adjust it to their liking so it feels comfortable enough on them. Throughout the fit test, I am observing the respirator’s fit on their face and making sure they are doing the proper techniques before proceeding to the next step. I am also documenting everything that is needed on the fit test report, which includes if they were able to detect the Bitrex or Saccharin testing spray, how many pumps of spray it took for them to notice it, and which respirator fitted perfectly for them.

Once the fit test has concluded, I use disinfecting wipes on the inside of the hoods, used pens, and the chair after every staff member. I then enter the fit test records into an online database so it can be available to access by their managers and any other VCH employee.

Throughout the day and in between fit tests, I am frequently communicating with my team and colleagues. This includes discussions about planning future fit tests, problem solving issues, or checking on each other to see if an extra hand for help is needed for their work.

The email inbox for my personal work email is constantly being checked as a timely response is much appreciated by colleagues, staff, and team members. It is crucial to be quick to respond because it shows responsibility, reliability, and effort.

At the end of each day, after the equipment is cleaned and the room is organized back to the original state, I briefly reflect on the day. If anything interesting or concerning has occurred, I would write the event down and bring them up to my supervisor where they would be glad to discuss and help figure out any issues if needed. There are always ways to improve and be more efficient in this job, as I continue to learn and problem solve during my solo and group fit test sessions.

Learning and Adaptation

There are tons to learn from this role, as the fit tester will engage in a variety work. This includes emails, social interaction, communicating with internal and external team members and colleagues, conducting the fit tests, and shadowing colleagues. Learning how to communicate the procedure of the fit test to staff members effectively is a continuously improvement. Also, becoming more efficient and confident in directing the test is also very beneficial to become a reliable and great fit tester. You can discuss feedback with team members where you can learn and adapt to become better in this role.

There are always opportunities and information to read up on which will help keep you informed and educated about respirator technology and policies regarding N95 respirator models and guidelines. This includes new models, materials, or specific features which would impact the fit and comfort on a staff member’s face. The health risks and airborne hazards are a large category of study where a lot of information is able to be read up about and learned about.

The biggest learning curve and adaptation comes from honing your communication skills. There are plenty of opportunities in practicing effective communication which comes from explaining fit testing procedures, addressing concerns, providing education to staff, talking with your team and supervisors, reporting issues, and so much more.

Collecting feedback is a necessary part of being a fit tester, as the more staff you fit test, the more information and data there is to collect and analyze. This allows you to notice trends and even predict which respirator models are most commonly used, or even which sites prefer what kind of model. This analysis gives you a much more accurate and effective tool to use when fit testing because it is able to immensely help in planning and predicting tendencies that will assist your team and make everything run smoother.

Accomplishments and Challenges

Many accomplishments will be achieved which is always a great feeling to experience. Being able to effectively fit test several staff in N95 respirators so they are able to now be confident and completely safe when dealing with patients containing an airborne disease. Knowing that you were responsible with providing them education, practical experience, and promoting safety throughout their work is a fantastic thought to have. You contributed to reducing the exposure of respiratory illness for these staff, which is in turn helping patients recover from their illnesses. The amount of expertise you will have gained from doing hundreds of fit tests will create confidence and deem you reliable at your job so you can be a trusted resource. The amount of connections you will acquire from communicating with colleagues and staff members will be enormous. They are all friendly, informative, and professional so it is a great opportunity to get to know more people and understand what they do.

Many challenges arise but it is important to know that it is all about how they are approached and dealt with. For example, staff members with facial hair are a challenge to fit test because this significantly reduces the effectiveness of the respirator. Uncomfortable situations may arise, such as rude staff members, awkward remarks, or continuous failed results. However, the key is to stand strong and be confident in your ability to do your job and remember that there is always an answer to an issue. The most common challenge are high demand situations which result in stressful moments. This is due to an overload of staff members coming in to be fit tested, as some extra staff may have dropped in without booking an appointment and you have to be able to recognize and see how to calmly handle this influx of people.

Reflection & Tips
Connection to Academic Studies or Career Goals

Fit testing involves many practical applications that would help me be able to pursue a career in Occupational Health and Safety. The understanding of workplace hazards, regulations, risk assessment, and protective measures that you must know directly relates to this career path. This knowledge in assessing and mitigating respiratory risks from airborne diseases are also taught and studied in several biology and biochemistry courses.

Psychology and Communication are major topics that have been covered in my previous academic studies as it teaches how effective communication is for social interactions. This comes into play when interacting with the staff members during the fit tests, as telling them what steps are occurring and why they are being done is critical.

Statistics and courses with Data Analysis have great connections to the tasks being done as a fit tester. The constant data that was acquired throughout this role from testing allowed me to use my knowledge of statistics to help recognize and analyze trends, identifying issues, and improving overall processes in the fit tests. I was able to create graphs for projects due to the ability of compiling and organizing data into specific categories and trends to present to supervisors and team members.

A connection to healthcare and medical sciences were established due to the understanding of medical conditions that could impact respirator fitting, such as scars, surgeries, dental work, or pronounced facial features.

Advice for Future Students

Being able to continuously learn and update your knowledge and skills by attending meetings, taking in feedback and advice from coworkers, and paying attention in training sessions are the most important areas that are needed for a successful candidate. Paying attention to detail and being meticulous are skills that are crucial for the majority of the job. Always prioritizing safety is an absolute must, which includes being used to sanitizing equipment and using personal protective equipment when necessary. The best advice would be to always remember to communicate with your supervisors and teams regardless if you are certain about going ahead with doing something. Always being able to show empathy and being patient is a big deal because there will be a lot of stressful times resulting from confusion, miscommunication, or disagreements. This will be a massive opportunity for anyone to take on this role as it is under a very well-known and respected organization, so any chance to improve and capitalize on great opportunities like this will be of benefit and worthwhile for your career path.


Nathaniel Cortese

SFU Student Undergraduate
Science › Biological Sciences
Co-operative Education
visibility  376
Aug 29, 2023