Emergency Preparedness, Safety

UPDATED: Can Employers Mandate the Use of Facemasks, and What If Employees Can’t (or Won’t) Wear Them?

This article was last updated and reposted on July 20 in accordance with more up-to-date guidance and links to additional resources.

The world has changed in an unprecedented way since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and employers have a lot of questions for our experts at Safety.BLR.com®. Read on to see how experts answered a multi-part question from a subscriber about whether employers can mandate the use of facemasks at their facilities, and what should be done if an employee can’t (or won’t) use the PPE.

Facemask at work

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Q: As the COVID 19 crisis continues, can employers require and mandate the use of facemasks in the workplace? What measures should be taken if the employee refuses or has an underlying medical condition that prevents their ability to wear a mask?

Answer 1: To answer your first question, the short answer is yes, you may require and mandate the use of facemasks in the workplace in light of the COVID-19 crisis. However, you must consider all factors related to the nature of your employees’ work to determine recommended practices, and engage in an interactive process and perhaps provide reasonable accommodation should an employee be unable to wear a facemask.

If an employer requires its employees to wear facemasks, the appropriate form of mask/respirator will depend on the type of employee exposure and on the transmission pattern of COVID-19. OSHA draws a distinction between face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators, and it is important to remember that surgical masks or cloth face masks are not an acceptable substitute for respiratory hazards unrelated to COVID-19 (e.g., if your employees are exposed to silica dust on the job, they must be provided with appropriate PPE; cloth facemasks are insufficient).

Under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134), an employer must provide appropriate respirators to employees when such equipment is necessary to protect the health of the employees. In light of COVID-19, OSHA has stated that employees in very high-risk and high-risk categories must be provided with adequate PPE, including respirators. Very high-risk employees include healthcare, deathcare, and laboratory workers who perform aerosol-generating procedures on known or suspected COVID-19 patients or who handle specimens or body parts from such patients. High-risk employees are other healthcare and deathcare workers who are exposed to known or suspected COVID-19 patients, but not those exposed to aerosol-generating procedures.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently recommended wearing cloth facemasks in public (especially in high-risk areas), the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) has stated that N95 masks should be reserved for existing work settings with particulate exposure from work functions, emergency responders, or healthcare facilities and that such masks are not effective against the spread of COVID-19 unless they are properly fitted and worn correctly along with other appropriate PPE. ASSP also notes that OSHA has created a recurring digest of COVID-19 resources available through its Alliance program.

There is also a frequent question as to who is required to supply facemasks on the job, the employer or the employee. While there is currently no federal standard clarifying this, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has issued guidelines that, among other things, recommend employers take steps to provide employees with cloth face coverings or allow them to use their own and reimburse them for the cost.

Answer 2: To answer your second question, if an employee refuses to wear a facemask or has an underlying medical condition that prevents their ability to wear a mask, the employer cannot assign the employee work in areas that would require the employee to wear the mask. Please note that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released extensive guidance covering employer considerations regarding the pandemic, including reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This question was answered by experts at Safety.BLR.com. If you would like to take a free trial of this valuable safety resource, click here.