Once upon a time face masks were mostly relegated to Halloween or used by immunity-compromised individuals. But the coronavirus pandemic has forever changed our way of life, and now, face masks aren’t only common—they are expected in many places. As an organization, you will have to decide whether to require your employees to wear masks. This is a controversial subject to many.
Factors to Consider Before Deciding on a Face Mask Policy
If you’re wondering how to approach the subject of face masks in the workplace, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides some guidance to help you navigate these tricky waters. Their report states that “millions of Americans will be wearing masks in their workplace for the first time” as businesses reopen and employees return to the office after months of stay-at-home orders. “OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work,” the agency said, but added that employers can decide against this “based on the specific circumstances present at the worksite.”
Maintaining strict social distancing guidelines, committing to keeping the workplace clean and sanitized, and improving air ventilation are the preferred methods of protecting employees. Face masks should serve as an additional layer of protection (literally), or serve as the primary means of protection if the other measures aren’t easy to enact. One thing is clear: because cloth face masks are intended to protect others, not the wearer, they are not considered
personal protective equipment (PPE) and therefore, employers are not federally mandated to provide them or train staff on their proper use. Other types of face coverings, such as surgical masks and respirators, protect wearers from exposure to infections and meet the definition of PPE.
Whether or not to require face masks also depends on where you live. Some states have made their use mandatory in certain occupations, such as restaurant waitstaff and hair stylists. Check your local regulations to learn more.
A recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in mid-May found that 86 percent of health care professionals required or planned to require employees to wear face masks at work, and 80 percent planned to provide and pay for them. Exceptions will be made in instances where face masks could make health problems worse for employees with preexisting breathing difficulties. OSHA also identifies other situations where face masks are not an ideal option, such as occupations where there is a risk of chemical contamination or excessive dampness, and cases in which they interfere with the ability of hearing-compromised individuals to communicate. OSHA recommends using masks with clear plastic windows around the mouth in these instances.
Ultimately, providing masks to employees and encouraging their use to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 may actually make employees feel more comfortable about returning to work. It’s important to consider all these factors before making a final decision regarding mask use in the workplace.