Although the official distribution of disposable masks to the public started last week, authorities have released limited information about their costs and manufacturers. In a recent investigation, FactWire found the production and processing of distributed masks from at least one site may not have met proper hygiene standards.

The masks, which come in packs of ten, are among those being distributed to each residential address in Hong Kong. These are the first batch of masks procured under the Local Mask Production Subsidy Scheme.

masks processing unhygienic
Over a thousand yet-to-be-packed masks are piled on cardboards without any protective covering. Photo: Factwire

Creative International Technology Limited is one of the manufacturers approved for two production lines under the scheme. However, processing of some of the masks is suspected to not meet the hygiene requirements of a cleanroom. Its workers were also filmed on camera packing the masks directly on stacks of paper boxes and cardboard.

The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said the Hong Kong Productivity Council has been conducting site visits regularly to monitor mask production. It said workers were wearing face masks and protective gowns during its visit.

However, according to FactWire’s investigation, some of the workers did not wear protective gowns at the processing site, even inside cleanrooms.

Located in Kwai Hing’s Wah Tat Industrial Centre, Creative International Technology’s mask production venue is a series of six connected units. The outside corridor was filled with paper boxes labelled “Together, We Fight the Virus!” – a slogan used by the government during the epidemic.

Workers wearing only face masks and gloves seal packs of masks by machine.
The production venue is a connection of six units next to one another. One of the units is used as a storeroom. Photo: Factwire.

FactWire obtained photos and video clips showing that the venue’s interior is divided into three areas, namely cleanrooms for production and packing, the storage area, and the office. At least 30 workers were on duty at the time of recording.

The videos show a mask production machine placed in the innermost area of one of the cleanrooms. Some of the workers wore face masks, headcovers and protective gowns. A man, however, was just in casual wear and was not wearing a protective gown or headcover.

In another cleanroom, about ten workers were in their casual wear without their protective gowns on. Most of them had on their gloves and head covers, but three did not wear their headcovers while another worker’s long hair was not entirely covered. They were packing finished masks into green packaging bags showing the motto: “Together, We Fight the Virus!”

The production venue is a connection of six units next to one another. One of the units is used as a storeroom.
About ten workers pack finished masks into green packaging bags labelled ‘Together, We Fight the Virus!’. They are in casual wear without wearing protective gowns. One does not have a head cover, another worker’s long hair is not entirely covered. Photo: Factwire.

Two other smaller cleanrooms were unused. One of them had several paper boxes in it. In contrast to these empty cleanrooms, seven to eight workers were packing masks in an area outside the cleanrooms, sitting around a “table” formed by stacks of cardboard and paper boxes with over a thousand yet-to-be-packed masks perched on top. The piles of masks were exposed to the air.

A source who had once worked at the facility told FactWire that she had witnessed workers picking up accidentally dropped masks off the floor and packing them with other masks.

The workers who were packing outside the cleanrooms had on their face masks and gloves, but not their head covers and protective gowns. There were also other workers passing by the area and a washroom less than three metres away. Paper boxes were haphazardly stacked together all over the place.

Workers wearing only face masks and gloves seal packs of masks by machine.
Paper boxes are stacked across the packing area where other workers pass by. Photo: Factwire.

The bags of masks were then sent to be sealed by a machine stationed approximately five metres away, a location close to the main door. Workers responsible for sealing the masks only wore face masks and gloves.

Based on observations from outside the main door, people were seen casually entering through the main door without washing or sanitising their hands. Temperature checks were also absent.

The packs of masks, after being sealed, were put into paper boxes labelled “Together, We Fight the Virus!”.

masks processing unhygienic
Workers wearing only face masks and gloves seal packs of masks by machine. Photo: Factwire.

Novetex Textiles Limited, in charge of the sanitising and packing of the government’s reusable CuMask+, had earlier shown the media how CuMask+ were sanitised and packed in cleanrooms. All cleanroom workers had on face masks, head covers, protective gowns and shoe covers. Sanitisation and temperature checks were conducted at every entrance and exit.

Branding Works Air is one of the local companies that build cleanrooms. Its Head of Engineering, Franco Lee, told FactWire that qualified cleanrooms must achieve the international standard of Class 8 under ISO 14644-1, such that pressure and airflow are controlled.

However, Lee stressed that even when the hardware machinery is up to standard, cleanrooms can hardly qualify without proper management and monitoring. He gave the example of workers having lunch inside the cleanroom, in violation of qualification standards.

masks cleanroom processing manufacture
CuMask+, a reusable mask handed out by the government earlier, was produced in a cleanroom. All the workers were wearing their protective gowns, head covers, face masks and gloves Photo: Factwire.

Lee added that in order to maintain Class 8 under ISO 146644-1, an ISO 13485 quality management system must be followed at the same time. This requires anybody entering cleanrooms to wear a headcover, a protective gown, and shoe covers. Some companies even require a change of pants. Anybody entering is first required to go through an air shower to avoid carrying any particulates into the cleanroom.

Section 6.4.1 of ISO 13485:2016 states that the organisation should monitor and control the work environment. This includes documenting requirements for health, cleanliness and clothing of personnel if contact between such personnel and the product or work environment could affect the safety or performance of the medical device.

Section 6.4.2 also states that it should maintain the required cleanliness during the assembly or packaging of sterile medical devices. Section 7.5.11 states that the organisation should protect the product from alteration, contamination or damage during processing, storage, handling and distribution.

masks processing unhygienic
Two of the workers do not have their head covers on. Photo: Factwire

In response to FactWire’s enquiry, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said that the Hong Kong Productivity Council has been monitoring the production of masks in the recent months through site visits and examining reports submitted by manufacturers. It said the Hong Kong Productivity Council “had seen relevant personnel wearing appropriate protective equipment, including face masks, protective gowns, head covers, gloves and shoe covers” during its site visits.

The Bureau did not respond to FactWire about the number of companies involved in supplying the masks currently being handed out to the public.

A male staff member of Creative International Technology Limited told FactWire over the phone that its workers are mandated to wear protective gowns and headcovers. He said the packaging procedure should be done within cleanrooms “as much as possible.”

When told that the company’s processing of masks may not meet hygiene standards, the staff member said that the claim “might be slander.”

masks covid19 covid coronavirus medical waste ppe
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

FactWire requested a response from a person-in-charge at the company. No comment had been received at the time of writing.

In view of the surge of demand for masks, the government used the anti-epidemic fund to subsidise 20 production lines under the Local Mask Production Subsidy Scheme. Company applicants are required to have their own production equipment, raw materials and an owned or rented production venue and cleanroom in Hong Kong.

Applicants also have to prove their capability to comply with Level 1 of ASTM F2100, the ISO 13485:2016 quality management system standard and to achieve ISO Class 8 under ISO 14644-1 for the cleanroom.

Out of over a hundred applicants, 15 companies obtained the subsidy. This includes Creative International Technology Limited who received a total of HK$4 million for two production lines. The company is expected to supply 4 million masks to the government every month for a year.

Workers wearing only face masks and gloves seal packs of masks by machine.
Seven to eight workers pack masks on a ‘table’ made of cardboards and paper boxes. Photo: Factwire.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced at the end of last month that packs of ten disposable masks would be distributed to each of roughly 28.8 million residential addresses in Hong Kong, starting from June 30. They are said to be the first batch of masks procured under the Local Mask Production Subsidy Scheme, although details of respective manufacturers and their exact costs remain unclear.

According to Company Registration, Creative International Technology Limited was founded on August 15, 2019. Its shares were transferred to Chan Kim-fai and Mok Ka-hei on February 28. The company’s address was changed on the same day into 92-98 Parkes Street in Jordan, where Oriental SAUNA SPA is located.

Founded in 2015 and funded by the public, FactWire is a non-profit investigative news agency.