Answering HR’s Top Questions About Masks and the Workplace

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May 11, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

As companies plan to reopen, we’re getting lots of questions about how to prepare for workers wearing cloth face masks, as advised by the CDC and now required by some jurisdictions. Should your employees wear masks? Must they? What do you need to know to do this right? Here is our summary of key questions and answers.

Since early April, CDC has been recommending that Americans wear face masks (cloth face covers) when they go out in public. For those workplace that have remained open – and those planning to reopen – this has intensified the many questions employers have about what is reuired and what is allowed regarding employees wearing face coverings at work.

Q: How do face coverings help?

It’s important that everyone understand what face coverings can and cannot do. Some of the delay in CDC recommending cloth face masks was reportedly because public health officials worried that people wearing face coverings might stop practicing social distancing and other, more effective preventive measures because they would (unjustifiably) feel protected by the coverings.

  • Cloth face masks (or surgical masks) primarily limit your spread, containing your own germs. The main point of wearing a cloth face mask is to contain your coughs and sneezes, preventing you from spreading your germs to other people and nearby surfaces. It can also help you avoid touching your nose or mouth accidentally. To some extent, it may serve as a basic barrier against large droplets reaching your mouth or nose.
  • These simple face coverings do not filter the air you breathe. Cloth face masks are not respirators. Unlike respirators, they are not certified or tight-fitting; they do not prevent leakage; there is no medical evaluation or fit-testing to ensure they work for each person; and they do not filter the incoming air even if they may block larger droplets. (On the other hand, respirators, such as the NIOSH-certified N95s, elastomeric devices, and powered air-purifying devices (PAPRs), come in different shapes and sizes with different features and uses. In some cases, the terminology can be confusing because there are a number of different names for the same thing. An N95 is a type of “filtering facepiece” or “dust mask” or “air-purifying respirator” under the OSHA regulations. All of these filtering facepieces are respirators.)
  • Face coverings supplement, not substitute, for other preventive measures. They are intended as an added layer of protection on top of social distancing and other protections. Anyone who has gone grocery shopping has seen how hard it is to stay six feet away from others at every moment. Office workers passing in a hallway or factory workers changing shifts will find the same challenge. For those moments, face coverings are a helpful additional tool. They work best when everyone wears them to keep their germs to themselves.
  • Face coverings are particularly important where community transmission of the virus is occurring. During community transmission, the virus is so widespread that anyone could be carrying it. Under these conditions, close contact (fewer than six feet) with any other person could present risk of infection. At the moment, this describes the entire United States. Over time, as the virus becomes more contained in each area, authorities may relax some of these requirements/recommendations.

Q: Are employees required to wear face coverings at work?

In some places and jobs, yes. State and local authorities are establishing requirements for reopening workplaces. Some locales have made face coverings mandatory at work, at least for some workers and/or situations. Just for example:

  • Delaware says that businesses must provide face coverings to employees working where they are exposed to the public or likely within six feet of co-workers.
  • New York requires essential businesses to provide employees with face coverings for employee use while in direct contact with customers or the public.
  • Pennsylvania requires business that are open to provide masks and for employees to where them while on site.
  • And others…

If you need assistance confirming the local rules applicable to your operations, please contact us.

Q: Must I provide my employees with face coverings?

  • In some places and jobs, yes. Some state and/or local governments are not only requiring employees to wear face coverings at work but are also requiring employers to provide the cloth masks. The Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania orders above are good examples. These requirements are evolving quickly, and the list of locales requiring employer-provided masks will surely grow in the coming days and weeks.
  • Regardless of whether it is required in your area at the moment, providing cloth face masks is a smart move. Why? First, it ensures that everyone has one. Since a cloth face mask mostly protects the people around the wearer, limiting germs in your workplace depends on everyone wearing face coverings when in close contact with others. In addition, your locale may soon require employer-provided masks. Providing cloth face masks across your company also helps streamline a consistent approach and reassuring message for your workforce (so employees in one location don’t feel “less protected” than employees somewhere else).

Q: What kind of face coverings should my employees use?

  • Use cloth face masks whenever a respirator is not required. Because the country is trying to preserve supplies of medical-grade surgical masks and respirators for use by health care providers, CDC, OSHA, and many states have recommended that most people use cloth face masks (unless there’s a reason for something more).
  • Follow CDC design guidance. There is no approved or certified design for cloth face masks. However, CDC has instructions for making masks on its web site. To play it safe, you may want to make sure that the face coverings your employees use generally follow or exceed the CDC design. CDC recommends cloth masks that:
    • Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face.
    • Are secured with ties or ear loops.
    • Include multiple layers of fabric.
    • Allow for breathing without restriction.
    • Can be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape.

Q: Do I have to train employees or adopt policies about face mask usage?

For cloth face masks, you may not be required to train employees. If cloth face masks were considered personal protective equipment (PPE), standards like 29 C.F.R. 1910.132 would require certifying a hazard assessment, providing the equipment, and training, among other steps. OSHA has not explicitly said that cloth face masks are not PPE. However, a recent OSHA alert for the construction industry suggests that face masks and PPE are two different things. This adds to the decent argument that face masks are not PPE.

However, training is still a really good idea. Even if the PPE rules do not apply to face masks, it is always good practice to ensure that employees understand the hazards in the workplace and the protective measures in place. This is particularly true for cloth face masks because many still don’t understand their purpose and limitations. It’s important that employees understand that the face coverings cannot substitute for social distancing and other administrative and work practice controls. In addition, please note that actual respirators (like N95s) likely are PPE, and there are requirements that apply when such filtering facepieces are used (see below).

Q: What exactly should I tell employees?

There is no magic formula, but based on CDC guidance, communicating key details like the information below should help employees understand the value and limitations of using cloth face masks:

  • Face masks or coverings (whether cloth or surgical masks) are relatively loose-fitting (compared with tight-fitting respirators).
  • A face mask primarily contains your coughs and sneezes and helps prevent you from infecting others and/or contaminating the surrounding area.
  • They can also help you avoid accidentally touching your mouth and nose.
  • In addition, face masks can provide some barrier protection against splashes, sprays, and larger respiratory droplets reaching your nose and mouth. However, cloth face masks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and do not prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.
  • Do not use a face covering if it will be hazardous. For example, do not place cloth face coverings on children under age 2, on anyone who has trouble breathing, or on anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.
  • Unlike with respirators, cloth face masks do not require fit-testing or seal checks since they do not fit tightly.
  • Unless respirators are required for a particular workplace risk, CDC recommends that most people use cloth face masks in order to preserve the critical supply of respirators for health care workers.
  • NIOSH-certified N95 masks are different. They are respirators that can filter the air you breathe when worn properly, reducing your exposure to airborne particles, from small particle aerosols to large droplets. N95 respirators are tight-fitting respirators that filter out at least 95% of particles in the air.
  • Not everyone is able to wear a respirator due to medical conditions that may be made worse when breathing through a respirator.
  • Achieving an adequate seal to the face is essential with a respirator in order for it to be effective.
  • This CDC infographic provides a great illustration of the differences between face masks and respirators. For additional information, see: Use of Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19.

Many employers are providing information like this in writing and having employees sign a form to confirm receipt. This could help employees understand the information while also providing documentation of your training, communication, and efforts.

If you’d like assistance with developing a form to use, please contact us.

Q: What steps should or must I take when employees wear cloth face masks at work?

  • Assess workplace hazards. Determine whether any employees require greater protection (g., respirators, such as in case of direct exposure to known/suspected COVID-19 patients or other workplace respiratory hazards).
  • Consult CDC design guidelines and considerations (above).
  • Make sure the face masks do not themselves create hazards.
  • Communicate and train employees (see above).

Q: What should I do if employees don’t follow cloth face mask rules?

If you require employees to wear cloth face coverings and they do not comply, you should generally follow your normal approach to discipline for violation of policies. That said, this is new, different, and the subject of much public discussion and confusion. In many places, it’s also not yet required by government rule or order. As a result, it’s smart to focus heavily on training, reminders, education, and counseling to the extent consistent with your policies. In addition, it’s important to confirm that the mask would not create any kind of hazard for the employee.

Q: What if employees choose to wear their own respirators instead of cloth masks?

CDC and OSHA have been recommending that we all refrain from using actual respirators unless necessary in order to conserve supplies available for health care workers. However, if an employee has acquired and would like to voluntarily use a respirator instead of a cloth face mask, this may trigger certain regulatory requirements.

  • Requirements depend on the type of respirator used. As noted above, an N95 mask is considered a respirator under OSHA regulations (in the rules, these types of respirators are also referred to as “dust masks” and “filtering facepieces”). A surgical mask or a cloth face covering is not a respirator.
  • When employees voluntarily use N95s/”filtering facepieces,” only two requirements apply. In this case, OSHA’s rule at 29 CFR 1910.134 does not require a full respiratory protection program. It does require two things of the employer:
    • Ensure that the respirator use will not in itself create a hazard.
    • Provide employees with the information contained in Appendix D of the rule.
  • When employees voluntarily use other respirators (not filtering facepieces), more requirements apply. Employee voluntary use of other respirators described in OSHA’s standard (such as elastomeric respirators or powered, air-purifying respirators) triggers additional requirements. In this case, the employer must:
    • Ensure that the respirator use will not in itself create a hazard.
    • Provide employees with the information contained in Appendix D of the rule.
    • Implement those parts of a written respiratory protection program needed to ensure that: (a) each employee using a respirator is medically able to use that respirator, and (b) the respirator is cleaned, stored, and maintained so that its use does not present a health hazard to the user.

Q: May the employer make employees pay for lost or intentionally damaged cloth face coverings?

This is somewhat unclear. If your state or locality requires you to provide face coverings, it would depend on that jurisdiction’s answer to this question. Many have not addressed this issue specifically. Depending on jurisdiction-specific requirements and guidance, the employer may be able to argue that it met its obligation when it provided the face covering in the first place. On the other hand, it’s always possible that a given jurisdiction will require employers to provide an ongoing supply of face coverings.

From a federal perspective, the answer may depend on whether OSHA considers the face coverings PPE or not (still undetermined). If the face covering is PPE, under 29 CFR 1910.132(h)(5), “[t]he employer must pay for replacement PPE, except when the employee has lost or intentionally damaged the PPE.” We have not seen guidance or commentary from OSHA in the current crisis that modifies this general requirement. Of course, we also have not seen any indication as of this writing that OSHA considers cloth face coverings used in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to be PPE.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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