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Research and Briefings

7 Questions Employers Should Consider About Face Masks at the Workplace


Tens of thousands of new cases of the deadly coronavirus are being registered daily in the US at a time when many businesses are reopening their brick-and-mortar locations or planning to do so in the near future.

While allowing employees to continue working remotely is the safest option, this is not possible for all employers. As organizations put in place measures intended to protect their people, millions of employees are returning to physical workplaces that look a lot different than the ones they left earlier this year. Among the most striking changes is the use of masks in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that individuals use cloth face coverings when in public settings.

Both employers and employees will need to adapt to this new reality. As health and safety professionals and other leaders strive to protect their people in a constantly evolving environment, a number of questions are likely to arise.

These considerations are not exhaustive; each employer must assess factors and considerations, many of which are constantly changing, that are specific to their businesses, including directives and guidance from federal, state, and local units of government. Further, we recognize that some individuals may have personal situations that prevent them from returning to the workplace under any circumstances until there is a vaccine for COVID-19. Employers should regularly confer with their legal and regulatory counsel and medical professionals to routinely monitor evolving directives and guidance from units of government and health authorities, such as the CDC.   

1. Should employers mandate the use of face masks in the workplace?

Generally, employers should follow governmental,  the CDC’s, and other health authority guidelines on the use of face masks as part of a comprehensive set of measures — including physical distancing and proper air circulation — aimed at reducing the spread of the virus.

Employers should evaluate the specific circumstances of their workplace when determining whether they should mandate the use of face coverings. If a mask-wearing policy is introduced, employers should enforce the policy across the board and in a manner that does not discriminate against any employees based on protected class status, such as age, disability, or pregnancy status.

However, employers can – and may be required to – make exceptions or accommodations based on needs or circumstances, especially for those employees who may not be able to wear masks due to health conditions, religious observance, or other reasons. Employers should consult with their employment counsel and consider engaging employees in the interactive process to determine any reasonable accommodations for such employees. For example, employers may reassign seating positions so that such employees are not near other employees or allow them to work from home, if possible.

In addition, as long as employers are adhering to guidelines from the CDC, local health, and governmental authorities, it may be acceptable to make distinctions between workers in an open office environment and those with private offices. The latter may be allowed to remove their masks while unaccompanied as long as they cover their faces whenever they are within six feet of a colleague, whether in their own office or outside.

Customer-facing employees, including those in the retail and hospitality industries, should be expected to wear masks. A number of states and cities are already mandating the use of face coverings in public, although the specifics vary by jurisdiction. In locations without such mandates, employers can still request that customers entering their premises wear face coverings, a practice already adopted by some major retailers.

Any new policy should be written and clearly communicated to all employees. Employers should also examine whether they will need to refresh dress codes to reflect new requirements and whether they will adopt a new dress code specifically for masks. For instance, will employees be permitted to wear a mask entirely of their choosing or will certain prints or colors be the only ones allowed?

In addition, employers must respect their employees’ privacy in relation to protected health information and ensure that any changes to employment practices are in accordance with applicable law.

2. Face masks are not compulsory in my state. Should I still require my people to wear them?

Face coverings are generally viewed in the same way as other safety equipment intended to protect employees and customers. The Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA) “generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work.” When making decisions, employers should consider the hazards of their specific situation and should strongly consider requiring face coverings in circumstances where it’s not possible for employees to maintain adequate distance from each other.

3. Should I provide my employees with masks?

Some states already require employers to provide masks. Even in states that don’t, a policy requiring employees to wear their own face covering can give rise to additional challenges, including the potential of wage and hour and uniform reimbursement claims, challenges when an employee forgets their mask, and questions relating to the effectiveness of employee-owned masks. In order to improve conformity and uniformity, it is a best practice for employers to provide masks — even if not required to do so — that comply with CDC and health authority guidance and fit within any existing dress code.

4. What types of face masks are most appropriate?

The CDC recommends that all individuals above the age of two, with some exceptions, wear cloth face coverings, which have been found to be effective at decreasing the spread of the virus.

Although the CDC does not recommend using face shields for normal everyday activities or in place of cloth masks, shields can offer some benefits, including allowing others to see the wearer’s facial expressions and being easier to wear, clean, and reuse. In order for face shields to be effective, they need to wrap around the sides of the face and extend below the chin. The CDC also notes that surgical masks or respirators should be reserved for health care workers and first responders. When implementing its policies, employers should consider what types of face coverings are currently available for purchase either by the company or by employees themselves. 

5. What are my options if cloth face coverings recommended by the CDC pose a hazard in the workplace?

OSHA states that it is up to employers to determine whether the use of cloth face coverings can present or exacerbate a hazard. These hazards, outlined by both OSHA and the CDC, include:

  • Contamination with chemicals used in the work environment, which can lead to chemical inhalation problems.
  • Incompatibility with other required personal protective equipment.
  • The risk of mask straps getting caught in machinery.
  • An elevated risk of heat-related illness in certain settings, such as while working outdoors.

Employers should consider the above and other potential hazards, including flammability of masks, as part of their risk assessment and, if necessary, determine alternative protective methods. These could include using face shields and/or surgical masks for employees who cannot maintain physical distance.

In addition, employers should consult regularly with legal and regulatory experts to monitor the changing legal landscape and to interpret and advise the organization on how to best comply with applicable regulations, including from OSHA, and governmental directives and guidance. 

6. How can I ensure that my people are wearing face coverings appropriately?

Per CDC guidance, face coverings must cover the nose and mouth and ideally fit snugly against the sides of the face in order to be effective. Responsibility for correct wear starts with the employee, although supervisors and colleagues can – and should be encouraged to – draw the attention of those not wearing their masks in accordance with such guidance. Employers should consider training, including videos explaining how COVID-19 spreads, the medical rationale behind wearing a face covering, and the proper way to wear a mask. Visual cues – including posters – are typically helpful in reminding employees to wear their masks. Regular messages, even on mobile phones, can also help reinforce your message.

Aside from drawing the attention of those who are not using their masks properly, supervisors can also reinforce positive behavior by recognizing and thanking employees who are effectively following guidelines. Among other steps, employers should use compliance metrics as a leading indicator of the effectiveness of their policies and consider introducing a catchphrase to help minimize any awkwardness associated with this new habit and help make proper use of face coverings part of the organization’s culture. Until mask use becomes a habit, employers should consider issuing regular reminders to their workforces.

7. How can employers enforce the use of face masks?

Employers will need to consider their response to those who refuse to wear masks and have a strategy in place to protect their client-facing people from customers who refuse to wear masks, including through visible notices underlining the requirements and the right to refuse service to customers who do not comply. It is worth considering training customer-facing colleagues about appropriate ways to approach noncompliant customers.

The use of cloth face coverings has been described by CDC director Dr. Robert R. Redfield as “one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus” especially when used universally. As they finalize or tweak their return to the workplace strategies, employers should consider a comprehensive set of actions aimed at minimizing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping their people safe.