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.
Since the beginning of April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that, when in public settings, individuals wear cloth face masks to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19. The CDC has recommended the use of cloth face masks because COVID-19 is spread primarily through the release of respiratory particles into the air, and masks act as a barrier to help prevent the particles from traveling once exhaled (e.g., by coughing, speaking, breathing). In turn, nearly every regulatory body, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), governors’ executive orders, and local health department guidance, have recommended or required that employers require the use of cloth face coverings by employees while at work.
On November 10, 2020, the CDC turned the scientific community – and the businesses community – on its head. Via a scientific brief, the CDC updated its cloth face mask recommendation, now stating that, in addition to helping reduce the transmission of the virus by the wearer (i.e., source control), a cloth face mask can also provide a level of personal protection to the wearer. Specifically, the CDC has found that “[m]asks also help reduce inhalation of [respiratory] droplets by the wearer.”
As an initial matter, in the November 10 brief, the CDC rebroadcast the efficacy of cloth face masks as a means to prevent the spread of the virus by the wearer exhaling the virus. According to the CDC’s research, all cloth face masks can effectively block most large respiratory droplets (particles 20-30 microns and larger), and multi-layered cloth masks can capture up to 50-70% of smaller respiratory aerosols (particles smaller than 10 microns) and also limit the forward spread of the aerosols they have not captured.
The newsworthy development, however, is that, based on scientific studies, the CDC has determined that cloth face masks can “reduce the wearer’s exposure to infectious droplets through filtration, including filtration of fine droplets and particles less than 10 microns.” Of course, the level of protection a cloth face covering provides is contingent on the fabric and construction of the mask – the more layers and the higher the thread count, the greater the performance of the mask. Indeed, the CDC highlighted that some cloth face coverings have demonstrated the ability to filter “nearly 50% of fine particles less than 1 micron.”
The CDC concluded its brief by restating that the community’s use of cloth face masks reduces the spread of COVID-19. We now understand that there is a synergy in the use of masks – masks simultaneously reduce the wearer’s ability to spread the virus, and protect the wearer from inhaling the virus spread by others. As highlighted by a number of studies,1 cloth face masks are an effective tool in our fight against COVID-19. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has concurred, the use of cloth face masks is a “two-way street.”
The November 10 scientific brief is unlikely to be the CDC’s final statement. The CDC noted that further research is still needed to determine the most effective cloth face mask materials and design. Perhaps foreshadowing future guidance, the CDC also noted that “[a]dopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns.”
This update may come as a jolt to those in the workplace safety and health community who have been preaching for the better part of a year that cloth face masks do not protect the wearer. As more studies are performed on cloth face coverings, we should expect OSHA, and other regulatory entities, to update their guidance in kind. Given the wide variety of non-respirator face masks currently being used by individuals – think homemade vs. medical grade surgical masks – it is unlikely that the regulatory authorities will dictate the specific type of mask that must be worn. However, even while we wait for the updated guidance, it is clear that the scientific community backs the universal use of face coverings. Therefore, employers that have not yet implemented face coverings in the workplace should evaluate whether masking is a viable option that would allow additional safety relating to COVID-19 while still allowing safe performance of work duties.
The use of face coverings is just one of many protocols employers can implement in order to stem the spread of the virus in the workplace. As such, in order to maintain a safe work environment, employers should carefully review the panoply of federal, state, and local COVID-19 workplace safety and health recommendations and requirements, and regularly consult with competent counsel to ensure compliance.
1 For example, a study of an outbreak aboard the United States Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt “found that use of face coverings on-board was associated with a 70% reduced risk” of transmission.