Labor & Employment Law Daily New OSHA FAQs focus on the use of masks in the workplace
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Friday, June 12, 2020

New OSHA FAQs focus on the use of masks in the workplace

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The new FAQs also make clear that they do not create any new legal obligations.

As it has continued to do throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA released new guidance—this time, a series of frequently asked questions and answers (FAQs) on the use of masks in the workplace, which outline the differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators.

Reminder to employers. The new guidance also reminds employers not to use surgical masks or cloth face coverings when respirators are needed. The FAQs also note that social distancing measures are necessary, even when workers are wearing cloth face coverings, and recommend following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on washing face coverings.

No new legal obligations created. As the agency repeatedly has noted before, the FAQs also contain a statement that the new guidance “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. It contains recommendations as well as descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards. The recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content, and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.”

Among other things, the statement notes that the OSHA Act’s General Duty Clause “requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Cloth face coverings. Employers have the discretion to determine whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace based on the specific circumstances present at the work site. For some workers, employers may determine that wearing cloth face coverings presents or exacerbates a hazard. For example, OSHA said that cloth face coverings could become contaminated with chemicals used in the work environment, causing workers to inhale the chemicals that collect on the face covering. Over the duration of a work shift, cloth face coverings might also become damp (from workers breathing) or collect infectious material from the work environment (e.g., droplets of other peoples’ infectious respiratory secretions).

Workers may also need to use PPE that is incompatible with the use of a cloth face covering (e.g., an N95 filtering facepiece respirator).

Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate in the work environment or during certain job tasks (e.g., because they could become contaminated or exacerbate heat illness), employers can provide PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks, instead of encouraging workers to wear cloth face coverings. Like cloth face coverings, surgical masks and face shields can help contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets and can help limit spread of COVID-19 to others.

Note that cloth face coverings are not considered PPE and cannot be used in place of respirators when respirators are otherwise required.

Communications. Employers should consider evaluating their accessible communication policies and procedures, OSHA also noted, to factor in potentially providing masks with clear windows to facilitate interaction between employees and members of the public who need to lip-read to communicate.

“As our economy reopens for business, millions of Americans will be wearing masks in their workplace for the first time,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt said in a press release. “OSHA is ready to help workers and employers understand how to properly use masks so they can stay safe and healthy in the workplace.”

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