As the coronavirus continues to rage on, employers are looking for ways to keep their employees safe. While social distancing is the best way to slow the spread fo COVID-19, social distancing is often not possible in many professional settings.

Many essential businesses may provide their employees with face masks. This decision is often based on circumstances around the daily requirements of the employees and other health obligations that employers must meet.

Employers are required to conduct safety audits and follow strict guidelines set out by the CDC. This comprehensive audit looks at all aspects of the work area and considers the job functions employees conduct.

There are four primary issues that employers need to consider to meet their health and safety obligations. Let’s look at what employers and employees should consider when doing their part to slow the coronavirus spread in essential businesses.

1. Are Employees Expected To Wear Face Masks?

The CDC recommends that all employees wear a facial covering for voluntary use if they work in an environment that makes them feel unsafe or deems a mask necessary for their health. However, an employer could be compelled to require individual employees to wear masks.

These situations are common in manufacturing and other roles where employees are exposed to high levels of harmful airborne contaminants.

In similar situations, states that workers of essential businesses could be required to wear face masks if they work in an environment that puts them at “medium risk” for COVID-19 exposure.

For example, if employees interact with individuals within six feet, employers could require all workers to wear a mask. This type of example can be seen in an essential business like a grocery store, where cashiers, stockers, and customer service representatives interact with customers on a daily basis and are in close proximity to guests.

Under OSHA guidelines, requiring employees to wear a face mask could be a way for an employer to provide a safe workplace for employees and patrons of the business. However, if a hazard assessment shows that masks are not required, the employer should communicate to frontline employees that wearing a mask is voluntary.

2. What Types Of Masks Should Employees Wear In “Medium Risk” Environments?

Typically, employers fall into the category to require employees to wear N-95 respirators in dangerous situations. These masks look similar to paper surgical masks, but their use falls under stringent regulations under OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard.

However, with the CDC’s recent recommendation that we wear cloth masks when we are in public areas where social distancing can’t be maintained, the CDC set the standard that N-95 masks should be reserved for health workers due to low supplies.

Employers can require employees in certain situations like grocery stores (in the previous example) to wear a cloth mask if deemed necessary after conducting hazard assessments.

You should talk with your manager if you are concerned about your health and wellbeing while working in an essential business setting. The coronavirus pandemic has transformed how employers view safety in the workplace, and you should look to your leadership for guidance in how you can protect yourself while also complying with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard in 29 CFR 1910.134(c)(1).

(1) In any workplace where respirators are necessary to protect the health of the employee or whenever respirators are required by the employer, the employer shall establish and implement a written respiratory protection program with worksite-specific procedures. The program shall be updated as necessary to reflect those changes in workplace conditions that affect respirator use. The employer shall include in the program the following provisions of this section, as applicable:

(i) Procedures for selecting respirators for use in the workplace;

(ii) Medical evaluations of employees required to use respirators;

(iii) Fit testing procedures for tight-fitting respirators;

(iv) Procedures for proper use of respirators in routine and reasonably foreseeable emergency situations;

(v) Procedures and schedules for cleaning, disinfecting, storing, inspecting, repairing, discarding, and otherwise maintaining respirators;

(vi) Procedures to ensure adequate air quality, quantity, and flow of breathing air for atmosphere-supplying respirators;

(vii) Training of employees in the respiratory hazards to which they are potentially exposed during routine and emergency situations;

(viii) Training of employees in the proper use of respirators, including putting on and removing them, any limitations on their use, and their maintenance; and

(ix) Procedures for regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the program.


3. Can Employers Require Cloth Masks That Are Not Designated PPE?

In a perfect world, everyone in an essential business would have their own N-95 respirator. However, due to critical supplies, these masks are saved for healthcare workers and other “high risk” positions.

Most frontline workers are encouraged to cover their mouth and nose with a cloth covering like a bandana or reusable cloth face mask. Even though these homemade remedies are far from ideal, they are still covered under OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard, and they are considered one-way employers can improve workplace safety.

It may not seem like a lot, but these administrative controls help employees, customers, and mitigate liability for the business. Cloth face masks can help control the spread of the coronavirus, and they are most effective when coupled with social distancing and frequent hand washing.

4. What Other Requirements Do Employees Need To Follow If They Need To Wear A Face Mask?

If your employer requires you to wear a mask (or encourages it), then they will likely have to provide you with general information about how to use and dispose of your mask. Even if a mask is communicated as voluntary, employers should still follow CDC guidelines and encourage social distancing whenever possible.

While cloth face masks are a great way to prevent the spread and to contract of COVID-19, they are not a replacement for social distancing and good hygiene practices like:

  • Frequent hand washing.
  • Avoid touching surfaces whenever possible.
  • Avoid touching your face before washing your hands.

If your employer requires you to wear a mask, they will also need to tell you that cloth masks are not as effective as surgical masks or N-95 respiratory masks. You can add different types of filters to your mask to improve their effectiveness, but cloth masks are not tested in a clinical environment, and their usability can’t be guaranteed.

What Hazards Are In Your Workplace?

Whether you are looking to feel more comfortable in your workplace, or your employer wants to limit their liability, wearing a mask at work is a great idea either way. The CDC has stated that face masks and respirators are not mandatory for workplaces outside of healthcare facilities, but this does not mean that frontline workers can’t benefit from wearing a mask when social distancing can’t be maintained.

You will also need to determine if a face mask will obstruct your vision or get stuck in machinery that you work with on a daily basis. These kinds of hazards could deem wearing a mask as more dangerous than not wearing one. Also, be sure never to share a mask and follow basic mask care tips to ensure your mask works best for you if you choose to wear one at work.