While the economy starts to re-open after coronavirus lockdown, non-essential businesses are faced with restarting business operations during an ongoing pandemic. Essential businesses that have remained open have had to deal with how to manage workforce challenges such as employee shortages due to illness and caretaking responsibilities, additional cleaning and sanitizing responsibilities, and arranging physical distancing and minimizing high touch surface contact to reduce exposure and transmission of coronavirus.
With new information being learned almost weekly about the virus, it can be difficult to determine the best way to keep your workforce, customers and business contacts safe. For businesses not in the healthcare industry, wearing face masks is becoming a safeguard practice.
CDC and WHO Recommendations
While there are differing recommendations and requirements regarding face masks being communicated by states and cities, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) both have recommendations about face masks.
The CDC recommends wearing a face mask to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, especially in social settings where physical distancing is difficult, such as stores. Cloth face coverings have been shown to stop respiratory droplets from spreading, although not as completely as surgical masks or N-95 respirators. For work environments interacting with the public, such as restaurants and retail stores, face masks for employees are most likely required for legal business operations. Knowing these requirements will guide employer decisions to require employees to wear face masks.
WHO recommends that healthy people wear a mask only if taking care of someone suspected or infected with coronavirus, and advises it should be done with frequent hand washing, completely cover nose and mouth, and be changed often. WHO says to wash hands thoroughly before putting on a mask, avoid touching the mask once it’s in place and cleaning hands with either sanitizer or soap and water if the mask is touched, and not re-use single use masks. Some of these recommendations may not be possible in all work environments.
Are Face Masks PPE?
While OSHA requires employers to provide or pay for personal protective equipment (PPE) that employees need for protection from workplace hazards, cloth face coverings that are ordered for all to wear in public settings fall outside of that description. That lessens the employer’s responsibility to provide masks and training on how to use them, but doesn’t prevent it. Employers can choose to provide masks and instruction on how to use them at work, or require employees wear masks at work if it is mandated by state and local municipal authorities.
Employee Refusal to Wear a Mask
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) explains that legal sources say that employers can require employees to wear masks barring union agreements against it or verified disability. Employers should explain state or local requirements for mask-wearing and be careful to have specific conversations with employees who claim any disability that prevents wearing a mask. Refusal without a verified disability may enable employers to use disciplinary measures such as sending employees home or suspending them from work. Other considerations for employee refusal to wear a mask are union environments and agreements.
The general consensus is that face masks prevent the spread of droplets, protecting others from the wearer’s exhalations. They are not 100% effective at preventing spread and do not protect the wearer totally, but they do provide a measure of prevention. Employers should consider all current information and governing body requirements when deciding whether or not to require facemasks in their workplaces.