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On Duty Equipment hits its stride with organic face mask production

New Liskeard outdoor supplier sees spike in U.S. orders
On Duty facemask
On Duty Equipment, outside New Liskeard, has become a manufacturer of reusable face masks. (Supplied photo)

Some online praise for a made-in-New Liskeard face mask has translated into a boon in sales for a manufacturer of rugged outdoor gear.

Since On Duty Equipment launched their offering to fight the spread of COVID-19, company president Roger Rondeau estimates they've sent 5,000 masks out the door as the Kerns Township business is ready with an order book that only figures to grow.

Established in 2004, On Duty Equipment is an original manufacturer and distributor of military-inspired, built-to-last field jackets, trousers, backpacks, belts, pouches, and weight-bearing Molle (tactical) vests.

They're a frequent exhibitor at mining and outdoor recreation tradeshows across North America with growing international sales.

The arrival of the pandemic in March plut their marketing plans to unveil a new miner's tool bag into disarray as Roger and his wife Annette began brainstorming what essential, in-demand product they could make locally.

The couple operates a shop outfitted with commercial sewing machines on their 150-acre property outside of New Liskeard. They employ three full-timers.

Face masks immediately came to mind.

A web search revealed countless North American manufacturers of masks and dealers who source directly from China.

"I looked at everything that was available and my wife and I thought we can do better because of the fabrics we’re using."

The version they came up with is a reusable, machine-washable mask with an inner liner consisting of a blend of unbleached and undyed hemp, which is hypoallergenic, bacteria-resistant and ideal for those with sensitive, easily irritable skin.

More importantly, it's devoid of the use of toxic azo dyes.

The outer fabric is made of a poly-cotton ripstop – common in military cap and uniforms – chosen for its durability and breathability.

The tight, square weave provides added protection against airborne water droplets.

"A lot of thought went into the design and the fabric," said Rondeau.

The mask's elastics are latex-free.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all covering, On Duty's version comes in four sizes with an adjustable nose piece designed to snugly fit the contours of the face.

Sales were sporadic after launching the masks during the third week of May, before a dramatic spike in mid-June, mostly in orders from the U.S.

The power of web revealed their mask was a top pick by Leafscore, an online American publication that seeks out and selects eco-friendly products. On Duty's masks were selected as the best overall non-toxic washable mask.

"That was a big boost," said Rondeau, who roughly estimates his sales ratio at 65 per cent Canadian and 35 per cent to the U.S., with some shipments to Australia and Switzerland.

"The demand, every day, keeps growing."

The company is in discussions with a number of hospitals looking to upgrade their staff with reusable PPE, and are talking with two Toronto-based companies – one in transportation, the other in the pharmaceutical industry – which have tested and approved the masks for their workforce.

While the pandemic has been a cooler on their main product lines, Rondeau said mask production has only kept staff working but has allowed them to tap into a local network of 10 seamstresses to meet demand.

At roughly the same time as the outbreak, they landed contracts to provide Molle vests for the U.S. Army's search and rescue unit, and are processing an order for the State of Georgia's Highway Emergency Response Operators.

Some exclusive Canadian distribution deals with popular outfitting brands like Helikon-Tex of Poland has further helped pick up the slack.

Rondeau noticed during the lockdown there's been a surge in people taking up bushcraft.

"We were very fortunate that we had a slight bump but were able to adapt very quickly and just keep going."

Earlier this year, the Rondeaus were also contemplating a move into New Liskeard to establish a retail storefront.

"We were outgrowing our current setup, so it's still something we’re looking at. We need to move to a bigger location.

"We were just about to start negotiations on a lease then COVID hit and that got put on hold but it’s still on the table."

With his mask production humming at 1,000 per week, the pandemic has given Rondeau pause to ponder other health-related products.

The company manufactures a cotton surgical cap that they've donated to local providers.

No doubt, he said, On Duty's mask production looks to have some longevity, particularly if local health units mandate the wearing of face coverings inside all public buildings and private businesses for the foreseeable future.

"I think face masks are here to stay for a while. It’s not going to be something where we’re done after a month. I think we’re going to see mandatory face masks probably well within the next year, I would suspect."