With COVID-19 on the rise all over the world, businesses need to take appropriate steps to protect both their employees and their customers and other stakeholders from the spread of the virus – including having a face mask policy at work as well as guidelines and requirements about other safety protocols using other protective equipment.
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What are the guidelines for wearing a mask in the workplace?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has previously recommended people wear masks or other face coverings in public settings.
COVID-19 is transmitted to other people through respiratory droplets produced when infected sneezes, coughs, or talks. The droplets can then land inside other peoples’ mouths and noses or be inhaled into their lungs.
The CDC guidance says that masks may be useful to slow the virus’ spread and to ensure that people who have coronavirus but don’t know they have it don’t pass it on to other people.
The CDC also recommended that anyone who is deemed to be an “essential employee” should wear face coverings in the workplace.
As vaccinations have become more widely available, however, in 2021 the CDC has revised its mask guidance and now says that fully vaccinated employees should be able to work in many situations without needing to wear masks, undertake physical distancing and other requirements that became normal throughout 2020.
However, in some jurisdictions, wearing a mask in public is compulsory to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. In these situations, employers will need to ensure a face mask policy at work so that their employees comply with any relevant legal orders. In other jurisdictions it is a gray area and wearing workplace face coverings might be recommended, but remains optional.
It's important that employers understand the local laws and adhere to them in developing a face mask policy at work, and to determine what their stance on vaccinations is and asking for proof of vaccination status if they choose to implement the latest CDC guidelines.
Workplace face coverings: what employers need to know
Employers have a moral and legal obligation to keep their employees safe. During the COVID-19 pandemic this can extend to introducing appropriate measures such as the requirement to wear masks at work. This is what you need to take into account when determining whether or not workplace face coverings are necessary in your organization.
1. Assess the level of risk
Determining the level of risk for your employees is the first step you should take in establishing whether you should insist on workplace face coverings. This will vary by industry and by job.
If your employees are in high-risk roles such as healthcare, aged care, pathology labs, first responders etc you should be insisting mandatory wearing of face masks in the workplace as part of an employee mask policy.
Your employees are at medium risk if they regularly come into close contact (within 6 feet) of other people who could be potential carriers of COVID-19. The risk is greater depending on the level of community transmission where your business is located and should be factored into whether you need a face mask policy at work.
Employees are at low risk and may not require workplace face coverings if they aren’t routinely coming into close contact with colleagues or members of the public.
Are ready to open the office after the pandemic outbreak? Use this after COVID return to work sample letter for managers to inform your employees about the new rules.
2. Do your employees need masks or face coverings? And what is the difference?
There is a difference between masks and face coverings, and again the industry you work in will determine which is necessary for your employees.
Masks are generally specialized for medical and surgical purposes, or may be fitted with a filtering respirator. They are recommended for health care providers, first responders and other frontline essential workers who need to take extra steps to protect their respiratory health.
Face coverings on the other hand are not suitable for medical and surgical environments. The CDC recommends cloth face coverings such as bandanas or other material that fit snugly across the face, are secured with ties or ear loops, include multiple layers of fabric, enable breathing without restriction and can be washed and machine dried without being damaged or changing shape.
3. What are the different types of face masks and coverings?
There are several different types of face masks and face coverings recommended for use in different types of circumstances. These include:
- Cloth face coverings – these should fit snugly against the mouth and be secured with ear loops. They can be reused and washed and help prevent the spread of droplets. They are not suitable for medical situations.
- Disposable face coverings – these can be used only once and then should be disposed of appropriately. They are also not suitable for medical situations.
- Medical grade face masks – these offer an additional layer of protection for healthcare workers or patients and for people in jobs where they perform work tasks that offer additional protection.
- Respirator masks – these are tight-fitting, higher-level masks with a vent that enables the external air flow, that are best suited to higher risk situations. There are different types of respirator masks available, including the popular N95 mask.
4. What to do if your employees refuse to wear a face covering
In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has released guidance that employers can require their employees to wear PPE like face masks to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
Employers have a basic right to determine and uphold rules in the workplace so long as they are non-discriminatory, and this includes developing an employee mask policy.
Employees who reject your mask policy and refuse to wear workplace face coverings can be considered to be adhering to safety precautions. As such, they can have their employment terminated for doing so.
There are limited circumstances where employees may not be compelled to wear a face covering - for example, if they have a medical condition, such as a respiratory illness or if they have religious grounds.
Some members of society are protesting face masks for political reasons, including that they believe it curtails their civil liberties or they believe the virus is a hoax and may believe that their refusal to wear a mask constitutes their right to free speech and may refuse to participate in a mask policy at work.
Private sector employers aren’t protected by First Amendment rights, while in the government sector, an employer’s right to implement a mask policy in the workplace and enforce health and safety provisions trumps an employee’s right to free speech.
5. Create a face mask policy at work
Suppose you require your employees to wear a mask or face covering during the pandemic. In that case, whether it’s because of a government mandate or just a company mandate, it is essential you have an official employee mask policy in place.
Your employee mask policy should be written by the Human Resources team and checked legally and should contain:
- a background on why face masks are required to be worn,
- information on which employees are required to wear face coverings and when,
- who should pay for the workplace face coverings and where they can be obtained,
- instructions on proper wear of the masks,
- how to maintain the masks,
- how to dispose of the masks
- and what happens if the policy is not adhered to.
Workplace Face Mask Policy Template
If you require your employees to wear a face-covering or mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, you should have a clear policy that you communicate with them.
Use this template as a guide to set out the relevant information about your organization’s approach to face coverings in the workplace during the coronavirus pandemic.
6. Communicate with employees about workplace face coverings
Once you have an employee mask policy in place, it’s essential that you communicate it with your employees.
- regular reminders of the policy,
- why it is important to wear a mask or face covering and training on how to wear one correctly,
- how to obtain a mask,
- what the consequences are of not wearing one,
- other aspects of the policy.
DeskAlerts is a great tool to use for these important announcements about your mask policy at work - it is a versatile system that can send to any device, in real time, wherever your employees are located.
You can use different channels to communicate your face mask policy at work such as pop-up notifications, screensavers, corporate wallpapers, scrolling tickers and digital signage to reinforce your messages. And the best thing is you will receive compliance alerts around delivery and reading confirmations meaning you will know which employees have read your messages so you have proof that they were aware of their obligations.
You should also send an email to employees to wear masks. A COVID-19 workplace mask policy letter that is sent to everyone in the organization can be used as proof that you have formally advised them of the policy and their obligations to comply with it for health and safety reasons.
Creating a mask policy in the workplace shows that your company takes its employees' health, wellbeing and welfare seriously and you’re committed to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Once you have the policy in place, keep it updated as the pandemic situation changes.