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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Coronavirus Update 7-15-2020: OSHA updates its mealy-mouthed facial covering FAQs (again)


OSHA has, yet again, updated its Frequently Asked Questions to advise employers about the use of face masks in the workplace during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work. Face coverings are intended to prevent wearers who have Coronavirus Disease 2019 (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.

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).

Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate in the work environment or during certain job tasks (e.g., because they could become contaminated or exacerbate heat illness), 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.

Note that cloth face coverings are not considered PPE and cannot be used in place of respirators when respirators are otherwise required.


Consistent with the CDC's recommendation, OSHA also recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work. Subject to state and local laws, employers have the discretion to determine whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace, based on other considerations such as safety, environmental and workplace hazards, and the medical needs of an employee. Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate in the work environment or during certain job tasks, employers should consider providing PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks, instead of encouraging workers to wear cloth face coverings.

What's the difference? 236 meaningless words. Unless and until OSHA mandates that employer require employees to cover their faces at work (as is necessary to limit the spread and transmission of COVID-19), it doesn't matter what OSHA says on the issue. A recommendation is worth nothing. We need clear mandates that all employees wear masks unless they meet a clearly defined health or safety exception, period. Otherwise, OSHA might as well not say anything on this issue at all.

* Photo by visuals on Unsplash