The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently issued guidance to answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the proper use of cloth face masks “at work” during the COVID-19 pandemic. The OSHA guidance must be read in conjunction with any applicable state rules and orders, many of which currently mandate that employees wear a face covering with limited exceptions.
Because face masks are an essential defense against the spread of COVID-19, understanding your employees’ respiratory health risks and establishing the right face mask protocol for your company are key factors in reopening and gradually returning the workforce to pre-pandemic levels.
In its FAQs, OSHA explains the differences among cloth face coverings, surgical masks (loose-fitting, fluid resistant barriers), and respirators (tight-fitting, particle filtering barriers). The following summary clarifies the variety of protective equipment that employees may use, along with its benefits and limitations.
|Cloth Face Coverings||Surgical Masks||Respirators (e.g., N95)|
|Considered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)||No||Yes||Yes|
|Contains wearer’s respiratory droplets||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Protects against splashes and spills||No||Yes||Potentially|
| Protects against airborne infectious
| Fit tests
|Regulated||No||Yes, must meet FDA and OSHA PPE requirements for use in medical settings.||Yes, must meet NIOSH and OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard requirements. If used as surgical masks, must also meet FDA and OSHA PPE requirements.|
OSHA does not require that employers provide employees with cloth face coverings; however, because they are not PPE, OSHA does recommend that employers encourage employees to wear face coverings and practice proper social distancing at work. Cloth masks should also be cleaned, stored properly, or replaced regularly.
OSHA also points out that while cloth masks may be used in certain circumstances to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it does not mean that cloth masks are suitable in other circumstances wherein employees are subject to occupational exposure from other particles that may present a risk to the employee. For example, if an employee wears a cloth face covering while working with chemicals, the covering would likely fail to properly filter chemical vapors. Importantly, with regard to the construction industry, OSHA makes it clear that cloth face coverings and surgical masks provide insufficient protection for construction tasks requiring respirators.
Lastly, and importantly, OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires that employers “furnish…a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In general, to prevent employee exposures to respiratory hazards, OSHA recommends that employers rely on a “hierarchy of controls”: (1) make efforts to eliminate/mitigate workplace hazards; (2) use engineering controls (e.g., ventilation), administrative controls (e.g., task modification), and safe work practices (e.g., social distancing); and (3) rely on PPE as a measure of last resort.