OSHA issues FAQs on face coverings, masks, and respirators in the workplace

Cloth face coverings are not PPE, but employers may require them, and require employees to provide their own coverings. Face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing, and could create additional hazards.

Posted June 12, 2020

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published several frequently asked questions regarding masks in the workplace. The guidance outlines the differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators. It reminds employers not to use surgical masks or cloth face coverings when respirators are needed. In addition, the guidance notes the need for social distancing even when workers use cloth face coverings. OSHA defers to the CDC recommendations for washing face coverings; the CDC simply advises putting cloth face masks through a normal laundry cycle.

Among other topics, OSHA’s guidance offers the following:

Are employers required to provide cloth face coverings to workers?
No, cloth face coverings are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE), so OSHA’s PPE standards do not require employers to provide them. However, employers may require them where transmission risk of COVID-19 cannot be controlled through engineering or administrative controls, including social distancing. OSHA noted that cloth face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing measures.

Should workers wear a cloth face covering at work, as the CDC recommends for people out in public?
OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings, but employers make the determination. Face coverings are intended to prevent individuals who have COVID-19 without knowing it (those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic) from spreading potentially infectious respiratory droplets to others.

For some workers, wearing cloth face coverings might increase a hazard. For example, cloth face coverings could become contaminated with chemicals, causing workers to inhale the chemicals, or may collect droplets of other peoples’ infectious respiratory secretions. Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate, employers can provide face shields and/or surgical masks instead. These can help contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets and can help limit the spread of COVID-19.

What are the key differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators?
Cloth face coverings may be commercially produced or homemade, and may be disposable or washable. They can be used by almost anyone, but those who have trouble breathing or who are unable to put on or remove a mask without assistance should not wear one. Cloth face coverings are not considered PPE, but contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Cloth face coverings will not protect against airborne agents due to loose fit and lack of seal, and are not appropriate substitutes where N95 respirators or surgical masks are recommended or required.

Surgical masks are typically cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as medical devices. They protect wearers against splashes and sprays (i.e., droplets) containing potentially infectious materials. In this capacity, surgical masks are considered PPE. They may also be worn to contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets (e.g., healthcare workers wear them to protect patients). Surgical masks will not protect against airborne agents due to loose fit and lack of seal or inadequate filtration. They may be used by almost anyone, and should be properly disposed of after use.

Respirators are used to prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including airborne or aerosolized infectious agents. They must be provided and used in accordance with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard at 29 CFR 1910.134, and must be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Filtering facepiece respirators may be used voluntarily, if permitted by the employer, in which case employees must receive the information contained in Appendix D of OSHA's Respiratory Protection standard.

This article was written by Ed Zalewski of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of this news item, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.

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