Face masks: your responsibilities as an employer
As Victoria settles into its second lockdown and adjusts to the public safety measure of state-wide mandatory face mask wearing (with a few exceptions), the flow-on effects have trickled through the rest of the country. Whilst not yet mandatory in other states, face masks are strongly encouraged in NSW in high-risk public settings, specifically1:
- currently required to be worn by all visitors to NSW healthcare facilities;
- in indoor settings where 1.5m physical distancing is hard to maintain, such as on public transport or in supermarkets;
- in indoor settings with a higher risk of transmission, such as for the staff of hospitality and customer-facing venues i.e. cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs; and
- during attendance at places of worship.
To mask or not to mask?
Whilst face masks are not a replacement for physical distancing, there has been evidence that wearing masks can aid in preventing the spread of airborne transmittable viruses like COVID-19.
Recent research revealed that mandated face coverings prevented over 78,000 COVID-19 infections in Italy and over 66,000 in NYC during the months of April and May this year2.
What does it mean for employers, when face masks become a mandatory control measure? Should employers be providing face masks to employees?
Every state and territory in Australia has Work Health and Safety legislation and the legislation states that all employers must provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to health and safety, by implementing suitable control measures so far as reasonably practicable. In other words, employers are responsible for providing suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers to protect them from risks to their health and safety while they are at work. This includes face masks.
The risk of infecting or transmitting the COVID-19 virus does not change regardless of whether mandated face masks become a public health control measure. This means that an employer should be taking a risk based approach when assessing whether or not they should provide face masks for employees while they are at work.
A few common scenarios to consider are:
- If your employees are required to attend a workplace (outside of their home) and physical distancing is not practicable, then you should strongly consider providing your employees with face masks to mitigate the risk of infection/transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
- Given the same scenario above, now with the addition of a government mandate to wear face masks, then you will be required to provide your employees with face masks.
- In a working from home scenario:
a. Given that we don’t need to physically distance from those we live with generally and the government’s mandate to wear masks is for outside of home, providing face masks for employees working from home is not required. You may wish to consider providing your employees with face masks while they work from home as an employee benefit.
b. However, if a person in the household has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and your employee has notified you, then you should consider providing your employee with face masks to mitigate the risk of infection/transmission.
- Travelling to and from work is not considered work-related, unless the travel is work-related. (Eg. going to a client meeting.) Employees should supply and use their own face masks for normal travel to and from work.
Who will enforce it?
As an employer, you will need to undergo consultation with your employees and/or work health and safety committee/representation to decide whether wearing masks is necessary to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 at your workplace. Once you have come to a decision that wearing face masks is necessary, then as the employer, you may call out those who do not follow your guidelines as they are placing themselves and other employees at a health and safety risk.
Whilst it is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe working environment, it is also the responsibility of each individual to act sensibly, reasonably and responsibly by doing the right thing and not placing themselves and others at risk. Employees must comply with reasonable instructions set by their employer in regards to wearing a face mask while at work (unless valid exceptions apply), to allow the employer to comply with their work health and safety obligations.
It is also timely for employers to remind their employees of their individual responsibilities in curbing the spread of the pandemic through:
- Physical distancing (at least 1.5 metres);
- Good hygiene;
- Wearing a mask when physical distancing proves difficult; and
- Staying home when unwell and getting tested.
As we continue to navigate through this pandemic together as a society, we expect that increasing medical evidence and government mandates and recommendations to wear masks will shift employers’ attitude towards face masks and PPE in general, as well as individuals who have been reluctant to use face masks in the past.
How do you use and handle masks correctly?
For information on the different types of masks and the latest guidelines on how to properly put on and take off masks, how to wash reusable masks and how to handle contaminated masks, please refer to the following official resources:
It is important that you closely monitor both national and state authorities’ guidelines and updates to ensure you are across what applies to your business and what actions you need to take.
Please reach out to your Marsh representative if you have any questions, or would like to discuss this article or discuss your business further.
For more information on PPE and how to develop or improve a return-to-the-workplace plan for your organisation, download our comprehensive and free guide: Practical Guide to Returning to Work Safely (AU Edition).
2 Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19, Renyi Zhang, Yixin Li, Annie L. Zhang, Yuan Wang, Mario J. Molina, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2020, 117 (26) 14857-14863; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2009637117
LCPA number: 20/487