What OSHA says about the proper use of face coverings in the workplace

October 10, 2023

With the use of facemasks now more prevalent in the workplace as a means to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) wants to ensure employers and employees are using face coverings properly.Many have turned to cloth face coverings as a form of protection, while others use respirators. Surgical masks are another form of face covering that people are commonly using.All three have practical applications, but certain situations or environmental conditions tend to make one type of face covering more effective over another, according to OSHA guidelines.So what are the key differences among the three types of face masks?Cloth face coverings:

  • Can be commercially produced or homemade and typically are made in the form of scarves, bandanas or items from other fabrics.
  • Are worn in public over a person’s nose and mouth to contain the wearer's potentially infectious respiratory droplets from coughs, sneezes, or talking.
  • Are not classified as personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Will not protect the wearer from airborne particles because they are loose fitting and lack a seal and adequate filtration capacity.
  • Should not be substituted for PPE, such as respirators (N95 masks for example) or surgical masks, in workplaces where those types of face coverings are recommended or required.
  • Can be used by almost any worker. However, those who have trouble breathing or are unable to put on or remove a mask without assistance should not wear one.
  • May be thrown away or reused after being properly washed.

Surgical masks:

  • Usually are approved through the U. S. Food and Drug Administration as medical devices. However, not all coverings that look like surgical masks are actually medical grade.
  • Are used to protect workers against splashes and droplets that contain potentially infectious materials. In this case, surgical masks are considered PPE. OSHA standards require employers to provide employees any necessary PPE at no cost to them.
  • Also may be worn as a means to contain the wearer's respiratory droplets and avoid contaminating surgical sites or to protect patients.
  • Should be worn by people who are sick to prevent transmission of respiratory infections that are spread by large droplets.
  • Will not protect the wearer from airborne particles because they are loose fitting and lack a seal and adequate filtration capacity.
  • Can be used by almost anyone.
  • Are not intended for reuse.

Respirators (air filtering facepieces):

  • Are used to prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including infectious agents that are airborne or aerosolized.
  • Must be provided and used in accordance with OSHA's Respiratory Protection standard.
  • Must be National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certified.
  • Need proper filter material and a tight fit to prevent air leaks, though in some instances loose-fitting powered air purifying respirators are acceptable.
  • Require a knowledgeable staff member to provide proper training, fit testing, availability of appropriate medical evaluations, monitoring, cleaning and oversight.

Meanwhile, OSHA has temporarily altered its enforcement discretion concerning annual fit testing requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic as long as employers have made good-faith efforts to comply with the standard’s requirements.About us: As the Heartland’s leading employer services company, Syndeo partners with local business owners to help them minimize risk, improve efficiency and maximize profitability allowing them the freedom to focus on growth and fulfilling their mission. Syndeo fulfills its mission by taking on all of the HR responsibilities for our clients’ workforce, including employee relations, benefits, risk management and payroll.

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