Should we require face coverings going forward? Does OSHA provide guidance? Is the cost of masks on the employer or the employee? Is there a state, county or city order which requires face masks in the workplace? What if an employee refuses to wear a mask or face covering? These questions are being asked by employers who are planning for the continued safety of their work environment now and in the future.
There is some research to support that an infected person wearing a mask may reduce spreading the disease to others. Since a person infected with COVID-19 may not exhibit symptoms for many days, he or she may unknowingly spread the virus when interacting with others. However, there has not been research to support that a currently uninfected, healthy person will avoid getting the virus by wearing a mask.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is recommending (not requiring) that people consider wearing a cloth facial covering or mask if they need to be in places where it may be difficult to maintain the recommended six feet of social distance from others. Cloth masks and facial coverings may also serve to reduce the amount a person touches his or her face.
While the CDC does not require wearing face masks, some states, counties and cities are making face masks mandatory. Employers should carefully review mandates which impact their place of employment to understand the specific requirements. Even if not mandated, many employers are taking CDC guidance to heart and considering either encouraging or requiring employees to wear face masks or face coverings when in the workplace.
OSHA’s FAQ’s around face coverings is helpful for employers in understanding the differences between face coverings, masks and respirators, and which types are considered personal protective equipment (PPE) subject to having a respiratory protection program in place.
Given the shortage of face masks and respirators, the CDC’s recommendation of wearing cloth masks to minimize the spread of COVID-19 has many employers considering requiring cloth masks be used at work. Employers do not have to develop and implement a written respiratory protection program when workers only use filtering facepiece respirators voluntarily. Rather, they must:
- Ensure that its use does not present a health hazard;
- Ensure that the respirator is properly cleaned, stored and maintained; and
- Provide employees with a copy of Appendix D of OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard
Employees working at an essential business who are unable to work remotely may request to be permitted to wear, or be provided with, cloth masks or facial coverings in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Employers should consider if this action would help lessen the anxiety felt by employees and allow the use of masks as an additional precautionary measure. Consideration should be taken, however, as to whether the face covering may cause a safety hazard if operating machinery.
OSHA generally requires employers to pay for the cost of PPE. Although cloth face coverings are not considered PPE under OSHA, if an employer requires employees to wear a cloth face covering in the workplace, the employer should consider covering the costs associated with the face covering.
Employees using any type of facial covering should ensure they are wearing it properly. The World Health Organization (WHO) has a video on proper removal and application of facial covering materials. In addition, the CDC provides guidance on the use of cloth facial coverings and OSHA released a video and poster that show employers and workers how to properly wear and remove a respirator. The video and poster are also available in Spanish.
Lastly, if an employer requires employees to wear face coverings in the workplace, and an employee refuses, the employer should ask questions of the employee to better understand their reason for refusal. Employers will need to take into consideration any religious protections under Title VII or if the employee may need a related reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).