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Face Mask Safety and Liability in the Workplace

Posted by Clarion Safety Systems on 10th Aug 2020

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Face Masks at Work – Safety and Liability Issues

With companies assessing ways to open their doors for business amid the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace safety and liability has become a central concern for many. One issue that has created some confusion is face masks. For employers, questions on mandating face masks, as well as on providing face masks (cloth face masks, surgical masks or even respirators) to employees may be top of mind. It's vital for companies to set up their own workplace face mask protocol that aligns with the current advice from bodies like the CDC and OSHA. Here, we help navigate safety and liability issues, as well as provide the up-to-date guidance you need to know.

OSHA, PPE and Face Mask Guidance
As OSHA sets rules related to personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace, it makes sense that many employers start out by looking to OSHA for guidance on employer obligations for providing and mandating face masks. However, OSHA has determined that cloth face masks are not considered PPE, so the rules regulating PPE for workers don’t necessarily apply for face masks at the workplace. “Cloth face coverings are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE) and are not intended to be used when workers need PPE for protection against exposure to occupational hazards. As such, OSHA's PPE standards do not require employers to provide them,” according to OSHA’s COVID-19 FAQs.

While employers are not technically required to provide face masks to workers, there are two key takeaways to consider in OSHA’s guidance, per OSHA:

  • “The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, requires each employer to furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Control measures may include a combination of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices like 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 SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Employers may choose to use cloth face coverings as a means of source control, such as because of transmission risk that cannot be controlled through engineering or administrative controls, including social distancing.”

OSHA also provides suggestions for employers to review the current CDC best practices for face coverings at work.

Recommendations for Face Masks from the CDC
Recently, the CDC released updated recommendations about the importance of face masks in situations where social distancing is not possible in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The CDC advocates for people to protect themselves and those around them from spreading the virus droplets by wearing cloth face coverings. In mid July, it released a press release, renewing their call on Americans to wear face masks, citing the latest scientific studies and case studies.

Federal and State Mask Policies
Another aspect for workplaces to consider is what your local district or state either recommends or requires when it comes to face coverings. While there is no federal requirement for businesses to have face coverings for their employees, many states and cities have mandated mask wearing.

Currently, at least 20 states have face mask mandates, including Maryland, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New York. As the spread of the virus continues, more states may start requiring face coverings. States like New York and Michigan also require employers to provide face masks for all workers.

Mask Availability – and Considerations for Other Types of Control Measures
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to find face coverings. Some people resorted to homemade masks because of the limited supply of PPE in the world. Now, some of the PPE and mask supply has been replenished, so employers may have an easier time providing protections. Depending on the type of business, ability to social distance and risk level of various situations, additional control measures may be needed, like protective shields. These efforts can not only help to stop virus transmission, but can help employees feel safer and give them reminders of the new normal.

Protective Measures: Hazard Assessments
Following all of OSHA’s standards is critical to ensuring employee safety as none of its standards have been waived in light of COVID-19. However, OSHA recommends that companies lend extra support to their safety program by undergoing a hazard assessment. While many employers have taken this step as part of their reopening plans, it’s recommended that hazard assessments be regularly performed to remain in line with the latest updates and face mask best practices per OSHA and the CDC.

The end goal of a successful hazard assessment is to have identified potential health and safety risks and put protective measures in place to eliminate or mitigate the hazards. Do face masks impede your employees from performing their jobs safely? Do they allow for adequate vision and communication? Are there potential controls that can be implemented to make safety masks and employee safety a successful pairing? This is where the various controls of a hazard assessment become useful.

Essentially, engineering controls are designed to completely block or remove exposure to the hazard (social distancing, protective barriers). When engineering controls are not fully effective, administrative controls, like staggered shifts, limited hours and work from home arrangements, are put into play to minimize contact with the hazard. Many employers operate utilizing administrative controls, which include protocols for personal hygiene, at it would be impossible to remove COVID-19 exposure and still operate successfully. In these cases, advocating for the use of personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and eye protection is advised to avoid exposure. More detailed information is available in OSHA’s hazard identification resources.

Employer Challenges
Wearing face masks in the workplace also presents some new challenges to some business models. An issue that could arise is if a mask impedes a worker's line of sight and causes more safety issues. It's important to make sure masks are worn properly and not impacting vision in these cases.

Additionally, some masks may end up fogging up safety goggles or glasses, so companies should provide alternatives in those situations. Masks that aren't regularly being disinfected also do more harm than good, so employers should advocate proper handwashing and disinfecting procedures for masks.

Setting Your Own Mask Policies
Today, it's vital for companies to write their own policies for face mask wearing – in line with their other COVID-19 safety and risk -related business measures – specific to their workplace. Points to consider include how employees will wear their masks, what impact masks may have on their operations, disinfection of masks, and considerations for their use with required PPE.

Visual Reminders to Support Your Company Policies
We can be sure that the recommendations and requirements for face masks at work will continue to be updated in the fluid situation brought on by COVID-19. Employers should continue to look to OSHA, the CDC and their state and local authorities to keep up with any new regulations and protect their customers and employees.

Another important consideration is posting visual reminders, such as prominent face mask signage, to keep workers, visitors and guests informed of their obligations while in your place of work.

Here at Clarion Safety, we offer a full line of COVID-19 safety labels and signs to guide staff on the new normal and help your business return to operations safely. For custom designed options and more, get in touch with our team and let us know how we can help support your safety policies in this ever-changing environment.  

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