Plastic ‘ear saver’ straps, like these printed by Langley Christian School, are a popular way to reduce pressure from medical masks (Lenica Godin/special to Langley Advance Times)

VIDEO: Printing up help for health care workers in Langley

Volunteers use 3D printers to make plastic ‘ear savers’ that ease pressure of safety mask straps

Beeping and humming as they lay down ribbons of plastic, five small Luzbit Mini 3D printers at Langley Christian School (LCS) have been busily making straps for medical masks for the last week.

Normally used as part of the school’s creative design program, the printers have been pressed into service to help hospital staff reduce irritation from the elastic holders on medical masks.

LCS school supt. Adam Woelders said it started about a week ago, when an alumni parent emailed school IT manager Eric Bylenga about a post on Facebook.

It was by a Langley nurse who revealed the protective medical masks, which are held in place by elastics looped behind a health care worker’s ears, can become physically irritating over a long period of time.

A strap that would hold the mask in place and eliminate the pressure on her ears would be a great thing, she said.

“She had requested six at first,” Woelders recalled.

A search online found a 3D printer design for a plastic mask strap that takes the strain off ears by looping the elastic over a holder at the back of the head.

”Our guys grabbed it,”

After some of the straps were passed on to other nurses, including staff at Chilliwack General Hospital, requests started flooding in.

Lynn Fripps Elementary school teacher-librarian Jennifer Fernandes has been running off what she described as “ear savers” at the behest of a nurse at Royal Columbian Hospital, who said some colleagues were getting bleeding behind their ears due to irritation from elastic mask straps.

“All these frontline workers that are working so hard, I think they deserve something like this to help save their ears.” Fernandes said.

Fernandes estimates she has run off about 550 so far and has distributed about 160.

While the process is high-tech, it is not automated.

Each machine can make one strap at a time, and when one is finished, it has to be removed by hand before another can be run off.

LCS Middle School principal Berkley Glazer spent the weekend “baby-sitting” the printers.

“I was kicking back in the computer lab, watching Netflix on my iPad and resetting the printers every 20 minutes,” Glazer said.

Glazer is challenging other schools to make and donate straps as well, and at least two, in Abbotsford and Surrey, are reportedly preparing to get on board.

About 300 clasps have been run off and donated so far, and that may rise to “as much as 3,000,” Woelders estimated.

“We’re just printing as many as we can,” Woelders told the Langley Advance Times.

“We’re just happy to do whatever we can do to help the community.”

LCS is running tests with their laser cutter to see if the process can be accelerated.

READ ALSO: A look at some of the B.C. inventors creating life-saving tools in fight against COVID-19

Some staff at the Signify plant in Langley, who are working from home as a result of the virus outbreak, have been making mask straps for about a week.

Plant manager Craig Stevenson explained that one work-at-home employee is using two 3D printers borrowed from the plant, while two others are using their own printers.

“I can confirm we have printed about 500 so far with a plan to print another 400 over the next few days,” Stevenson said.

“We have given them to local hospitals via our own people whose partners happen to work in the medical sector.”

“It’s no biggie,” Stevenson insisted.

“The real heroes are the people in the hospitals.”

People feel “helpless” in the face of the coronovirus, and are looking for things they can do, he added.

Stevenson said the Signify printers were using a design developed by a Pitt Meadows resident and tested at Eagle Ridge hospital.

More information can be viewed on Facebook at the “YVR Makers for Emergency Response & Support” page or “Vancouver Makers for Emergency Response & Support.”

There has been an international movement to use 3D printers to fill the gap in supplies for health care workers during the COVID-19 outbreak, with public domain designs released to make everything from face shields, masks, ventilator parts, safety goggles and even hands-free door openers.

A Chilean company is claiming its 3D printer version of the N95 mask is especially effective because it made using antibacterial materials.

READ MORE: Fraser Valley crafters are busy sewing cotton masks for health-care workers

In the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, a group of three formed “Project Draw Breath” to use 3D printers to create ventilator masks to help pump air into a person’s lungs to assist breathing.

That group, which first included 14-year-old Alex Marsh and Dr. Richard Walton, has since expanded to 10 people helping create the special masks. The group has also created easy-to-construct plastic face shields.

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