As COVID-19 shows no sign of slowing and local governments continue to roll back re-openings or establish new mandatory protocols, the use of masks is becoming commonplace in many workplaces around the world. In a recent Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) study, 86% of employers stated that they either currently require or were planning to require face masks in their workplaces. Interestingly, almost 80% also said they were planning to pay for the masks, in order to avoid placing the financial burden on their employees.

It has been a challenging time for many employers and the guidance on health and safety concerning COVID-19, particularly regarding the use of face masks, has been contradictory at best. After initially dismissing the use of face masks to limit the spread of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is now encouraging their use in both public spaces and workplaces. In fact, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) now strongly recommend the use of masks in specific industries such as the laundry business and childcare industry.

Mask use is also highly recommended for workspaces where social distancing is difficult or impossible, and public interaction is frequent, such as retail shops. However, neither of these recommendations are legally binding, and federal law does not currently mandate the use of masks for COVID-19.

Several cities and regions have implemented laws that require the use of masks in indoor areas, and since the situation continues to be fluid, these laws are constantly evolving. As such, it is critical to stay on top of both federal and state laws regarding the use of masks and the implications for your company with respect to liability and compliance.

Here is what you need to know about the use of masks in your workplace.

Which Mask is Right for Your Workers?

There are essentially three types of masks recommended for use against COVID-19: cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators. OSHA recommends the use of N-95 respirators in both health care and many construction operations. However, for most businesses, cloth face coverings or surgical masks are considered sufficient.

Cloth Face Coverings

These include both disposable options and commercially produced or homemade scarves, bandanas and masks. The latter can be made with pockets for filters and customized with company logos or other decorations. None of these options is considered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and they are not regulated. Due to their loose fit, they do not offer full protection for the wearer and are designed more to protect those the wearer comes into contact with. The non-disposable options must be washed after each use

Surgical Masks

Surgical masks are the types of disposable, commercially-made masks used by doctors and other staff in surgeries. Many employers are now providing them for use in other workplaces. They are considered PPE and are regulated. However, if not fitted correctly, these offer the same limitations as cloth face coverings. They must also be disposed of after each use.

Respirators

The most commonly recognizable respirator is the N-95 used in health care settings, which received a lot of media attention when there were shortages early in the pandemic. Respirators fit tightly to the wearer, and their effectiveness is dependent on individual mask fit testing that measures the fit and ensures no respirable particles can enter or escape. Respirators protect the wearer as well as those they come into contact with. Usually, these are disposed of after a single-use. However, after shortages early in the pandemic, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) released guidelines regarding the proper cleaning and reuse of respirators, including the N-95.

When Not to Wear a Mask

Federal law does not mandate the use of masks and considers their use by employees to be voluntary, although many states now require their use in workplaces. Employers are also well within their rights to require the use of face masks by their employees in any state. Employers can also dictate the permissible decor on face masks, including the prohibition of profanity, symbols or other offensive material.

Employers should, however, be aware that individuals with certain medical conditions can find wearing a mask extremely difficult. These include workers with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other lung diseases. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released guidelines that state that an employer is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make reasonable accommodations if employees are unable for medical reasons to wear masks. That said, most cloth and surgical masks do not add resistance and their loose fit makes them easier to wear for workers with existing conditions.

How to Wear a Face Mask

Workers should wash their hands thoroughly before donning a mask and refrain from touching their face or mask once it is in place. For maximum effectiveness, the face mask must cover both the nose and the mouth and be pulled in with elastics or ties to fit as close as possible to the sides of the face. There should be no gaps on the sides of the mask. The employee should also be able to breathe easily while the mask is on.

Any masks that become damp should be immediately discarded and replaced. If you are planning to provide N-95s to your staff, ensure you provide mask fit testing for all employees to guarantee their effectiveness.

Surgical and N-95 masks should be disposed of after use. Cloth masks should be washed after each use in hot, soapy water and then dried in high heat. To limit contamination, remove masks from behind the head or ears and then hold them away from the body or any other surfaces. Supply enclosed receptacles for the collection of masks for either disposal or washing. Employees should always wash their hands again after removing masks.

When to Wear a Face Mask

If you elect to require masks in your workplace or state law mandates their use, they must be worn whenever possible to be effective. Indoor workspaces are more at risk than outdoor spaces. Masks should be worn by all employees whenever they are within six feet of other people. This includes your break rooms, lunch rooms and restrooms.

However, when workers are in offices or other isolated or confined areas, they can safely remove their mask.

Employers have every right to require face masks in their workplaces, although in some states they are still under no obligation to do so. Masks can help alleviate your workers' anxiety about returning to work even as the pandemic rages on and can greatly help to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They can also keep your workers and the public safe.