To reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people wear masks in public settings, especially when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. While a mask might not protect the wearer, it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others.
In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released a series of frequently asked questions and answers regarding the use of masks in the workplace.
What are the key differences between surgical masks, respirators and cloth face coverings?
Surgical masks are used to protect workers against splashes and sprays that contain infectious materials. They are considered personal protective equipment (PPE) but will not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents due to their loose fit and lack of seal or inadequate filtration. Surgical masks are not intended to be used more than once.
Respirators, such as N95 respirators, prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including airborne transmissible or aerosolized infectious agents. Designed to achieve a very close facial fit, their edges form a seal around the nose and mouth. Respirators require proper filter material as well as proper training, fit testing, cleaning and oversight.
Cloth face covering, such as scarves, bandanas, and items made from t-shirts or other fabrics, can be produced commercially or improvised/made at home. Currently recommended by the CDC to reduce the spread of COVID-19, cloth face coverings are worn in public over the nose and mouth to contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets produced when an infected person talks, sneezes or coughs. Cloth face coverings are not considered PPE and are not appropriate substitutes for respirators or surgical face masks. In addition, cloth face coverings may be disposable or reusable after proper washing.
Are employers required to provide cloth face coverings to workers?
According to OSHA, face coverings are not considered PPE and are not intended to be used when workers need PPE for protection against exposure to occupational hazards. OSHA’s PPE standards do not require employers to provide cloth face coverings. The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, requires each employer to furnish to each of its employees a workplace free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Control measures may include a combination of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices such as social distancing, and PPE. However, employers may choose to ensure that cloth face coverings are worn as a feasible means of abatement in a control plan designed to address hazards from COVID-19.
Should workers wear a cloth face covering at work?
OSHA recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work. Employers have the discretion to determine whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace based on specific circumstances present at the work site. For some workers, employers may determine that wearing a cloth face covering presents or exacerbates a hazard, such as becoming contaminated with chemicals used in the work environment or, over the duration of a work shift, a cloth face covering becoming damp from a worker’s breathing. Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate in the work environment or during certain job tasks, employers can provide PPE, such as face shields or surgical masks.
Does wearing a medical/surgical mask or cloth face covering cause unsafe oxygen levels or carbon dioxide levels to the wearer?
No. Medical masks, including surgical masks, do not compromise oxygen levels or cause carbon dioxide buildup. They are designed to be breathed through and can protect against respiratory droplets, which are typically much larger than tiny carbon dioxide particles.
Cloth face coverings are loose-fitting with no seal and are designed to be breathed through. In addition, workers may easily remove their medical masks or cloth face coverings periodically (and when not in close proximity with others) to eliminate any negligible build-up of carbon dioxide that might occur.
How should I keep my reusable cloth face covering clean?
According to the CDC, cloth face coverings should be washed after each use and can be cleaned by washing machine or by hand. If washing by machine, use regular laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth used to make the mask. If washing by hand, prepare a bleach solution by mixing 5 tablespoons of household bleach per gallon of room temperature water, soak the mask in the solution for 5 minutes and rinse with cool or room temperature water. Cloth face masks can be dried either on the highest heat setting in a dryer machine or they can be air dried.
For additional information and resources about workplace safety and COVID-19, visit www.osha.gov.