OSHA Updates FAQs on Face Masks in the Workplace

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Seyfarth Synopsis: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has updated its frequently asked questions and answers to advise employers about the use of face masks in the workplace.

We had blogged previously about face masks at work. See DOL Issues FAQs About Face Coverings, Surgical Masks, and Respirators in the Workplace, Nothing Comes Close To The Golden Coast: California Requires Masks, New York Issues Executive Order Requiring Employers to Provide Essential Workers with Face Masks, and New CDC Face Mask Guidance Raises Liability Issues.

Now the OSHA FAQs indicate that “OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work. Face coverings are intended to prevent wearers who have COVID-19 without knowing it (i.e., those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic) from spreading potentially infectious respiratory droplets to others. This is known as source control.” Consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation for all people to wear cloth face coverings when in public and around other people, “wearing cloth face coverings, if appropriate for the work environment and job tasks, conserves other types of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as surgical masks, for healthcare settings where such equipment is needed most.”  OSHA explains that:

Employers have the discretion to determine whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace based on the specific circumstances present at the work site. For some workers, employers may determine that wearing cloth face coverings presents or exacerbates a hazard. For example, cloth face coverings could become contaminated with chemicals used in the work environment, causing workers to inhale the chemicals that collect on the face covering. Over the duration of a work shift, cloth face coverings might also become damp (from workers breathing) or collect infectious material from the work environment (e.g., droplets of other peoples’ infectious respiratory secretions). Workers may also need to use PPE that is incompatible with the use of a cloth face covering (e.g., an N95 filtering facepiece respirator).

OSHA concludes that where cloth face coverings are not appropriate in the work environment or during certain job tasks, “employers can provide PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks, instead of encouraging workers to wear cloth face coverings. Like cloth face coverings, surgical masks and face shields can help contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets and can help limit spread of COVID-19 to others.”

While OSHA offers face shields as an alternative where face coverings are not feasible, no federal agencies have certified face shields as an equally effective alternative means of protection.  The CDC explains that “it is not known if face shields provide any benefit as source control to protect others from the spray of respiratory particles. CDC does not recommend use of face shields for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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