Gone are the days of standing around the watercooler discussing last night’s unbelievable season finale, or the buzzer beater shot that won the game. Terms like “social distancing,” “global pandemic” and “flatten the curve” have become part of everyday conversations. Conference rooms and working lunches have been replaced by virtual meetings and video chats. When they are together, workers are now told to stand at least six feet apart from one another and wear a face mask.
Once reserved for healthcare professionals, face coverings and masks have become a normal part of daily life for most. In fact, an increasing number of states, local governments and employers are mandating that workers wear masks covering the mouth and nose, especially when social distancing measures are difficult. Some see this mandate as a necessary burden, and some are concerned not only about their efficacy, but of their safety.
According to OSHA, these new regulations have been met with resistance from people that claim masks collect dangerous levels of carbon dioxide or restrict their oxygen. It doesn’t take much internet searching to find sites claiming masks cause a 60% reduction in oxygen or CO2 poisoning. Images of people wearing a mask and gasping for air are shown as a warning of this silent threat. Simply put, these images and warnings are false.
In response to these concerns, OSHA recently released new guidance that stated, “Medical masks, including surgical masks, are routinely worn by health-care workers throughout the day as part of their personal protective equipment (PPE) ensembles and do not compromise their oxygen levels or cause carbon dioxide buildup.” In addition, cloth face coverings are loose-fitting with no seal and are designed specifically to be breathed through.
With all this said, it is important to point out that there are possible instances where wearing a face mask or covering could be detrimental to the employee, however this has more to do with certain working environments than it does with the mask itself. Because there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to face coverings, it falls to the employer to evaluate the risks of exposure to the virus as well as hazards present in each work environment. According to OSHA, employers should determine if cloth face coverings “presents or exacerbates a hazard.” For example, if the face covering has the potential to be contaminated with chemicals or collect infectious material, an alternative option should be available. OSHA also points out that standards such as the Respiratory Protection standard, the Permit-Required Confined Space standard and the Air Contaminants standard do not apply to the wearing of medical masks or face coverings in work setting with normal ambient air, such as healthcare, office and retail settings.
Although OSHA does not require employers to provide face coverings, if cloth coverings are not appropriate, employers do have the option of providing face shields or surgical masks. It is also important to remember that face coverings are not a substitute for continued social distancing.
As new guidance evolves it is important that employers quickly adapt to the changing needs of workers during this time. Communication and flexibility are more important now than ever before. Having an open dialogue with your employees and your willingness to address their concerns will show that you value their safety above everything else.