An arbitration process has ruled that the face masks worn by Winnipeg police don't offer enough protection from drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil.

The decision came Friday after months of disagreement between the Winnipeg Police Association and the City of Winnipeg over the issue.

Since 2016, police officers have been equipped with N95 respirators for protection against exposure to synthetic opiates. The move was in response to the spike in the fentanyl-carfentanil crisis and the risk of exposure to the potent drugs faced by frontline officers.

"It's a very scary situation," said Maurice Sabourin, president of the Winnipeg Police Association. 

"Our concerns were that our members are going into dynamic situations and they're unable to determine whether they have a seal or not," he said of the N95 respirators.. 

The arbiter ruled on Friday that the masks "provided insufficient respiratory protection," according to the WPA. 

"Less than two grains of salt can be lethal with fentanyl and carfentanil and they're placing themselves at risk. The least the service can do is provide the members with the best possible equipment that's out there," said Sabourin. He says he blames the mayor's budget for that. 

'Most of the members don't have the confidence in the mask to actually wear it. A lot of them do not wear it.' -  WPA president Maurice Sabourin

N95 respirators are worn by healthcare workers across Canada and the United States for protection against airborne viruses, including tuberculosis. They are 95 per cent efficient at filtering out aerosol droplets as tiny as 0.3 microns in diameter. The cross-section of a human hair, by comparison, is 50 microns. 

A N95 respirator

N95 respirators are 95 per cent efficient at filtering out aerosol droplets as tiny as 0.3 microns in diameter. (CBC)

The respirators have two straps for securing it to the head and nose. A positive and negative pressure check is done through inhalation and exhalation to ensure there are no air leaks. 

Between 400 and 500 general patrol and emergency response officers were fitted with the masks last fall. 

"Most of the members don't have the confidence in the mask to actually wear it. A lot of them do not wear it," said Sabourin. "If you don't have a seal it's not going to work for you."

He said five or six members have had to seek emergency medical treatment for ingesting, inhaling or absorbing opiate matter since the masks were introduced, but none of those officers were wearing one at the time of exposure.

The WPA proposed that the city outfit officers with half-mask respirators instead, which are reusable and provide protection against particles and vapours when used with attachable cartridges and filters.

Sabourin said city officials argued that the half-masks offered the same protection as the disposable N95 respirators.

The half-masks are about $30 each, Sabourin said, while the N95s cost about thirty cents apiece when bought in bulk. Sabourin says half-mask respirators was the union's attempt to be reasonable with the city.

"Unfortunately, we're having to look at a full-face respirator at this point," he said. Those cover the entire face and start at about $200.  

A spokesperson for the police service said the decision will have to be reviewed in detail "before we can assess its implications."

The arbitrator did not respond to the CBC's request for comment 

Sabourin says full-face respirators are worn by officers in Ottawa, Vancouver and soon in Regina. Half-masks are worn by members in Calgary and Edmonton, he added. 

"We're just trying to keep up with what the rest of the industry is dealing with."