Not All Face Masks Are Created Equal: What Employers Should Know Before Distributing Dust Masks or Respirators in the Workplace
April 20, 2020
By Amelia A. Esber and Charles P. Keller
Employers considering whether to distribute any type of face mask in the workplace should know the potential occupational safety and health implications. OSHA’s respiratory protection standard, 29 C.F.R. § 1910.134, governs employee use of dust masks and respirators. An employer’s obligations under the respiratory protection standard hinge on the type of face mask offered and whether use by employees is voluntary or mandatory.
Importantly, if a hazard is present in the workplace that mandates respirator use, the below guidelines may not apply; rather, the employer must analyze the work environment, conduct a written hazard assessment, and determine the proper respiratory protection.
Cloth Face Coverings and Surgical Masks
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public settings where other physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Many employers are considering whether their employees should utilize cloth face coverings or surgical masks in the workplace. Cloth face coverings and surgical masks do not qualify as respirators under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard and thus employees are free to use them in the workplace. However, employers may nonetheless want to consider instructing employees on the proper use and care of cloth face coverings and surgical masks so as to avoid other hazards that could arise.
Importantly, not all surgical masks are created equal. Some surgical masks constitute dust masks or respirators and thus employers should pay particular attention to that distinction when selecting a face covering.
Voluntary Use of Disposable Dust Masks
The respiratory protection standard defines a dust mask as a respirator. An employer offering disposable dust masks to its employees on a voluntary basis must comply with some basic provisions of § 1910.134. A written respiratory protection program is not required when use of a mere dust mask is voluntary; but the employer must nonetheless distribute the Appendix D to § 1910.134 to its employees. Further, the employer must ensure the voluntary use of dust masks does not create a hazard.
Voluntary Use of N95 or Higher Respirators
If an employer offers N95 or higher respirators to its employees on a voluntary basis, it must comply with the same requirements noted above for disposable dust masks. The respirators must also be NIOSH-approved. Further, the employer must implement a worksite-specific, written respiratory protection program to ensure employees are medically able to use the respirator and that the respirator is cleaned, stored and maintained properly. Finally, the employer must provide a medical evaluation to its employees, either by administering the medical questionnaire in Appendix C to § 1910.134 and having it evaluated by a physician or other licensed health care professional or via a physical evaluation.
Mandatory Use of Disposable Dust Masks or N95 or Higher Respirators
An employer’s obligations under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard become much more onerous when employee use is mandatory. This is true whether respirator use is required because of a workplace hazard or merely because the employer mandates that every employee wear a respirator. Under such circumstances, the employer must implement each of the following:
- A worksite-specific, written respiratory protection program that is compliant with § 1910.134(c)(1);
- Provide a medical examination by administering the Appendix C or through a physical evaluation;
- Conduct fit testing pursuant to § 1910.134(f) if the respirator is a negative or positive pressure tight-fitting facepiece as defined in the standard; and
- Conduct respirator training in accordance with § 1910.134(k).
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