Whether you are an essential business who has stayed open during the COVID-19 pandemic or you are bringing employees back to the workplace, masks are a hot topic. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings including workplaces, where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community transmission.

There are many questions about the differences between cloth face coverings, masks, and respirators, and which (if any) are appropriate to wear in the workplace.

 What are the Differences?

Employers should know that face coverings, masks, and respirators are different and should be used by different types of professions in the workplace.

  • Face Coverings
    According to the CDC, cloth face coverings may prevent people who don’t know they have the virus from transmitting it to others. These can be purchased or even made at home. Cloth face coverings typically filter out some particles in the air, but do not offer much protection for the wearer from catching the virus. This is why social distancing measures are important even if individuals are wearing masks. These face coverings are not surgical masks or respirators and are not appropriate substitutes for them in workplaces where masks or respirators are recommended or required.
  • Masks
    Medical or surgical masks are similar to cloth face coverings but may be made of disposable materials like paper or plastic. Similar to cloth face coverings, they do not actually filter out particles, but instead prevent droplets from spreading by the wearer. These may be in short supply as they are needed for healthcare professionals and medical settings, which is one reason cloth face coverings have been popular options.
  • Respirators
    Filtering respirators, such as an N95 and K95 masks are drastically different than the previous two options. These are designed to fit tightly against the face and can have an impact on your heart and lungs. As a result, individuals who wear one in the workplace are required to be medically cleared. Individuals must receive a receive a fit test and a pulmonary function test. If not worn properly, these respirator masks offer little to no protection and could cause serious health issues. N95 respirators can filter out 95% of air particulates that are from .3 microns in size. The virus itself is smaller than what a N95 can filter (.05-.1 microns), but generally has to be accompanied by droplets which can range from .25 microns and up. Even N95 masks are not going to offer 100% protection. These types of respirator masks are also currently in short supply due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not recommended that individuals who are not required to wear these types of masks use them at this time.

Should My Organization Require Face Coverings or Masks

Masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the CDC considers these as critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders. Unless providing critical services in one of these professions, most employers will want to consider using cloth face coverings rather than masks. N95 respirators can filter out 95% of air particulates that are from .3 microns in size. To put this in perspective, a cross section of a human hair is 50-70 microns and humans cannot see anything less than 40 microns. The virus itself is smaller than what a N95 can filter (.05-.1 microns), but generally has to be accompanied by droplets which can range from .25 microns up. If employees choose to wear a respirator mask in the workplace, they should be required to complete a Voluntary Respiratory Protection Program form and follow OSHA recommendations for use. Before making any determinations, employers should check updated guidelines from sources such as the CDC and local governments.

Face Coverings in the Workplace

Cloth face coverings may prevent people who don’t know they have the virus from transmitting it to others. Wearing a cloth face covering will not prevent all transmission or infection of COVID-19, but it can reduce the spread of larger droplets. The CDC has stated that cloth face coverings should not be a substitute for social distancing. If employees are able to maintain a distance of six feet from others, cloth face coverings may not offer much additional protection

The CDC currently has the following guidelines for effective use of cloth face coverings, which include the following characteristics:

  • A tight fit but comfortable on the face, allowing for breathing without restriction
  • Secured with ties or ear loops
  • Includes multiple layers of durable fabric, able to withstand washing for reuse

General best practices for implementing face coverings in the workplace include:

  • Create specific policies. Employers should have policies and practices in place for use of face coverings. Topics to cover may include:
    • Who is expected to wear face coverings?
    • How will face coverings will be supplied?
    • How will employees be informed about using face coverings correctly?

Employers will also want to plan for unique situations, including:

  • An employee who objects to wearing a face covering
  • An employee who loses his or her face covering
  • An employee who is unable to wear face coverings due to a medical condition
  • An employee who would prefer to wear their own face covering, if the employer will be providing them
  • Communicate expectations to all employees. Employers should communicate policy updates related to face masks to all employees. This may include posting notices, as well as training employees on best practices. Communications should cover topics such as whether face coverings are optional or mandatory, who will be providing them and how they will be washed, and how training will be conducted.
  • Ensure face coverings are washed daily. This may mean that employees will need more than one face covering to ensure adequate time for laundering. According to the CDC, washing face coverings in a washing machine should properly clean it.

Effective practices can ensure that face coverings are being used effectively and that employers can plan for how to introduce face coverings in the workplace. Many health experts advise that COVID-19 may even come back in additional waves, and employers may end up utilizing COVID-19 related business practices for the near future. When implementing face coverings in the workplace, employers should check with local guidelines and laws, and seek legal counsel when implementing any policies or changes.

Training Employees on Properly Wearing Face Coverings

To ensure the best use of face coverings in the workplace, employers may want to consider a training program for employees. Training dialogue may include the following best practices:

  • Before putting on your face covering, make sure to wash your hands. Upon entering the workplace, ensure your cloth face covering is snug and secure. Make sure you are able to breathe comfortably and without restriction.
  • Avoid touching your face or the cloth while you are wearing it. Touch only the ties or strings when you remove your face covering.
  • Remember—wearing a cloth face covering does not replace other COVID-19 best practices, such as washing hands often, maintaining social distancing of 6 feet or more and avoiding touching of the face.
  • When it is time to take off a face covering, avoid touching hands to your face, eyes, nose, and mouth. As soon as the face covering has been removed, make sure to wash your hands immediately.
  • Store you face covering in a paper bag (plastic if paper is not available) when not in use. Placing your face covering on your desk, in your pocket, or in your purse will contaminate those surfaces.
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed in a washing machine between uses.

Paying for Face Coverings

In some states, organizations are currently required to supply face coverings to employees, while others offer more flexibility. Employers should check with local guidelines for accurate and updated information. For employers that are looking to provide cloth face coverings can make or purchase them. For employers that are requesting employees to make or purchase their own face coverings, employers may be required to reimburse employees for time, materials and costs, depending on the employment laws in their area.

Protecting the Safety and Health of Employees

As employers plan for how to operate both during and post-coronavirus, creating preventive best practices can set up organizations for success. By being proactive and establishing appropriate measures and practices, employers can not only help prevent the spreading of diseases—but put employees at ease that necessary steps are being taken to ensure the health and safety of those who will be spending time in the workplace.  Remember that in most cases, if social distancing is taking place, a face covering might not be necessary, but each business must decide what is appropriate based on their industry, employees, and location.

As laws and guidelines related to COVID-19 update, employers should consult with legal counsel when updating or changing policies. As you consider planning for your organization in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, contact Helpside, Inc. for additional COVID-19 related resources.