COVID-19 Alert: Face Coverings in the Workplace
OSHA Publishes FAQs on Face Coverings in the WorkplaceBy: Amanda E. Thibodeau
June 17, 2020
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently published additional recommendations in the form of FAQs related to the use of face masks in the workplace. The new guidance covers the differences between PPE, cloth face masks, and surgical masks, and what the current OSHA regulations require of employers. OSHA clarifies that the new FAQs do not place new regulatory burdens on employers, but are instead provided to assist employers in providing a safe workplace under current regulations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act’s General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1), requires employers to provide their employees with “a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” This generally requires employers to adopt strategies and other control measures to protect their workers from known hazards. While cloth face coverings are encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), current OSHA regulations do not require cloth face coverings. However, OSHA does have regulations and standards on when PPE is required or recommended. It also notes that cloth face coverings or even surgical face masks are not a substitute for PPE, such as N95 masks, under OSHA’s PPE standards.
OSHA’s FAQs detail the differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators, and the merits and protections of each. OSHA recommends that even though cloth face coverings are not required under its regulations, employers may choose to adopt such a policy as a control measure, and OSHA does encourage their use. OSHA notes, however, that whether an employer chooses to require or encourage masks will be highly dependent on the specific circumstances of each worker, workspace, and work requirements. In some instances, the wearing of a face covering may increase other hazards, and employers should be cognizant of evaluating such risks when forming any policies on face coverings. OSHA also emphasized that face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing measures, and employers must still adopt such strategies with or without face coverings.
OSHA additionally made clear that for industries or situations where respirators and other PPE are required by the presence of applicable workplace hazards, the regulations require that employers attempt other mitigation and control strategies before requiring respirators – but when respirators cannot be obtained due to supply issues (or other unavailability), employers cannot substitute cloth or surgical masks. For example, where asbestos is present and creates an imminent danger to the worker, the employer must attempt other control issues (engineering, administrative, and work practice controls) first. If the control measures do not eliminate the hazard and respirators are not available, the employer must delay the task, if feasible, to avoid exposing the worker to the hazardous condition.
For more information, please contact Amanda Thibodeau.