OSHA Issues FAQs Regarding Face Coverings, Surgical Masks, and Respirators in the Workplace

On Wednesday, June 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a series of frequently asked questions and answers regarding the use of cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators in the workplace related to COVID-19. The new guidance recognizes that as many workers begin to return to the workplace throughout the United States, they may be wearing masks in the workplace for the first time. The FAQs represent the most recent guidance from OSHA addressing protective measures for workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.

Differences Between Cloth Face Coverings, Surgical Masks, and Respirators

The new FAQs first address key differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators.

OSHA emphasizes that cloth face coverings are items made from garments, scarves, or other fabrics that help contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. Unlike surgical masks and respirators, cloth face coverings “are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE)” and are “not appropriate substitutes for PPE such as respirators” including N95 respirators or medical face masks where respirators or face masks are recommended or required to protect the wearer. OSHA explains that cloth face coverings “will not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents” because of the loose fit and the lack of a seal or inadequate filtration. While there are limitations to cloth face coverings, they may be “used by almost any worker,” except that those “who have trouble breathing or are otherwise unable to put on or remove a mask without assistance should not wear one.”

As explained by OSHA, surgical masks are typically medical devices which are cleared by the FDA—but OSHA cautions that not all devices that look like surgical masks are actually medical-grade or cleared to be used as a medical device. A primary function of an actual surgical mask is to protect workers against splashes, sprays, and droplets that may contain potentially infectious materials. Therefore, OSHA considers surgical masks to be PPE. OSHA reminds employers that under OSHA’s PPE standard “employers must provide any necessary PPE at no cost to workers.” Therefore, if surgical masks “are being used only as source control—not to protect workers” against droplets containing potentially infectious materials—then OSHA’s “PPE standards do not require employers to provide them to workers.” OSHA also explains that surgical masks alone “will not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents” for reasons similar to the limitations of a cloth face covering.

With respect to respirators, OSHA explains that these are “used to prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including airborne transmissible or aerosolized infectious agents.” When respirators are used they “must be provided and used in accordance with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard” which is contained at 29 CFR 1910.134. The use of a respirator requires “proper training, fit testing, availability of appropriate medical evaluations and monitoring, cleaning, and oversight by a knowledgeable staff member.” OSHA further explains that when respirators are necessary to protect workers, the employer must have a respiratory protection program compliant with OSHA’s standard. However, workers may voluntarily use filtering facepiece respirators or FFRs if permitted by the employer. If an employer does permit the voluntary use of FFRs, then employees must receive information that is contained in Appendix D of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard.

OSHA then seeks to clarify several questions specific to cloth face coverings. OSHA first explains that employers are not required to provide cloth face coverings, but may choose to do so as a feasible means of helping to control the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. For example, OSHA explains that an employer may choose to have workers use cloth face coverings “as a means of source control” when the risk of transmission cannot be controlled through other methods such as by enforcing social distancing or by using physical barriers.

OSHA further reminds employers that the General Duty Clause under the Occupational Safety and Health Act requires each employer to furnish a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Therefore, employers may decide to use a combination of engineering controls, administrative controls, as well as safe work practices such as social distancing and cloth face coverings (when actual PPE is not required for the particular working conditions). OSHA states that it “generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work” particularly to help wearers who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic from spreading the virus.

However, OSHA provides 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.” Therefore, it is important for employers to carefully evaluate the appropriateness of cloth face coverings for the particular conditions that are present. Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate 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.” OSHA also reiterates that cloth face coverings are not a substitute for other practices such as social distancing measures.

When respirators are necessary in a particular workplace, employers “must not use surgical masks or cloth face coverings” as a substitute. OSHA reminds employers that it has issued temporary guidance regarding enforcement discretion around the use of respirators, including extending the use or reuse of certain respirators, and/or using respirators that have been certified under the standards of other countries or jurisdictions.

Moreover, OSHA clarifies that while it has described “crisis strategies” for healthcare settings in which surgical masks or cloth face coverings may offer “more protection than no mask at all” when respirators are needed but not available, such guidance is “not intended to suggest that surgical masks or cloth face coverings provide adequate protection against exposure to airborne contaminants for which respirators would ordinarily be needed.” OSHA also reminds employers that permissible exposure limits of all substance-specific standards—such as asbestos and silica—remain in place, and surgical masks or cloth face coverings “are not an acceptable means of protection when respirators would otherwise be required” such as when engineering, administrative, and work practice controls do not adequately control the exposure.    

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.