As employers return employees to the workplace amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some have questions about the use of face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about face coverings in the workplace.
Q: Are face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators the same?
A: No, there are some key differences between each type of protection:
Cloth and similar face coverings are intended to prevent asymptomatic individuals from spreading potentially infectious respiratory droplets to others. While cloth masks aren't considered personal protective equipment (PPE) for the purposes of occupational safety and health regulations and cannot be used in place of respirators or other PPE, cloth face coverings are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings.
By contrast, if surgical masks are cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as medical devices and used to protect workers against potentially infectious materials, surgical masks may be considered PPE. While they can help block large-particle droplets, surgical masks won't protect the wearer against smaller airborne transmissible infectious agents due to loose fit and lack of seal or inadequate filtration.
Respirators are a type of PPE used to prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including airborne transmissible or aerosolized infectious agents. They generally must be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). For the purposes of COVID-19, they are typically required for those employees who perform tasks that are at a high or very high risk of exposure, such as healthcare or emergency response workers.
Q: Are my employees required to wear a face covering?
A: More than 40 states and many local jurisdictions require individuals to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In many cases, employers must provide the face covering and ensure that employees wear it. Some of these requirements depend on the type of business or the type of work. Check your state and local laws, regulations, and orders to ensure compliance.
Note: Both OSHA and the CDC generally recommend that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work.
Q: What if my employees are subject to both a state and local face covering requirement?
A: The requirements that are more protective generally apply. For example, if a state rule covers only certain employees but a local rule covers all employees, the local rule should be followed.
Q: If my employees aren't required by state, county, or city rules to wear face coverings at work, can I still require them to do so?
A: Generally, employers may require employees to wear face coverings even if their state, county, or town/city doesn't mandate it. If cloth face coverings are inappropriate in certain work environments, employers could provide PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks instead.
In certain situations, employers may be required to provide a reasonable accommodation to address a face covering requirement. For instance, if an employee has a disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering, the employee could be allowed to telework. Or, if an employee uses lip reading to communicate with co-workers, the employer may need to provide face coverings with a clear window or a face shield to allow the employee to do so. Employers may also be required to provide reasonable accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs and practices. Some state and local orders also include exemptions from their face covering requirements.
Q: Can my company rely on face coverings instead of social distancing?
A: No, face coverings aren't a substitute for social distancing.
Q: Am I required to provide face shields and other PPE to employees?
A: Employers must conduct a hazard assessment in accordance with OSHA's PPE standard (29 CFR 1910.132), if applicable, to determine the PPE requirements for their unique work site. Employers subject to this standard must determine if PPE (such as gloves, surgical masks, and face shields) is necessary for employees to work safely after considering whether engineering and administrative controls and safe work practices (such as social distancing or the use of face coverings) can effectively mitigate identified hazards. Consider modifying worker interaction— both among coworkers and with customers, visitors, or other members of the general public—in order to reduce the need for PPE, especially in light of potential equipment shortages. If PPE is necessary to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19 during particular tasks when other controls are insufficient or infeasible, or are in the process of being implemented, either consider delaying those tasks until the risk of exposure subsides or use alternative means to accomplish business needs and provide goods and services to customers.
Note: There are currently 22 OSHA-approved State Plans that cover the private sector. State Plans must have standards and enforcement programs that are at least as effective as OSHA's and may have more stringent requirements. If you are covered by a State Plan, ensure compliance with your specific requirements. Additionally, some states have approved emergency regulations and laws to impose additional requirements for employers to protect employees from COVID-19.
Q: Do I have to pay for face coverings and PPE?
A: Some COVID-19 related state and local regulations and orders require employers to pay for face coverings and PPE. Employers may also be subject to requirements under existing state and local rules for paying for equipment and/or uniforms used on the job. Check your state and local rules to ensure compliance.
Under federal rules, employers are prohibited from deducting from an employee's wages the cost of any items that are considered primarily for the benefit or convenience of the employer if it would reduce the employee's earnings below the minimum wage or cut into their overtime pay. There is no specific guidance about whether this rule would apply to face coverings. Therefore, unless state or local rules provide further guidance, ensure that face coverings don't reduce the employee's pay below the applicable minimum wage or cut into overtime earnings.
Generally, employers must pay the full costs of any PPE, including replacement PPE, required under OSHA.
Q: An employee presented me with a laminated card that states they are exempt from face covering requirements. Can I still require them to wear one? What should I do if an employee refuses to wear one?
A: Even if they appear to be official, these cards aren't produced by any government agency. If an employee presents such a card, employers shouldn't rely on it to exempt the employee from a face covering requirement. Instead, engage in an interactive discussion with the employer to determine whether the employee needs a reasonable accommodation. If the employee isn't entitled to an accommodation under federal, state or local laws, regulations or orders, you may generally treat the employee's refusal as a disciplinary issue and address according to your policies.
Q: If I'm not subject to a face covering requirement, can I prohibit employees from wearing one?
A: Federal, state, and local rules may protect employees who wear a face covering voluntarily in the workplace, provided the face covering itself doesn't violate safety and health standards and policies.
Review federal, state and local laws, regulations, and orders to ensure compliance with applicable requirements for face coverings and PPE.