A client approached me recently about updating their company’s employee handbook to include COVID prevention policies. Specifically, we looked at whether or not OSHA has requirements on mask usage in the workplace.
OSHA does not have a specific mask policy that applies to all businesses. However, here are some principles that businesses should keep in mind when creating their workplace policies.
In the context of COVID, OSHA says that its guidance is advisory and informational – not mandatory – in nature. OSHA’s primary objective is to ensure that employers protect employees from “recognized hazards” that may cause death or serious physical harm. Its COVID advice is intended to assist employers in abating hazards as part of their obligation to provide a safe and healthful workplace.
In other words, it is up to the employer to determine if its workplace conditions may foster the spread of COVID, thereby posing a safety hazard to workers. Many employers with employees working in close quarters have established COVID-19 prevention programs that include physical distancing, improved cleaning programs and ventilation, vaccination requirements and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings.
Follow CDC guidance and local community guidelines
OSHA maintains that its COVID protocol will remain consistent with current CDC guidance on mask wearing. If a community is implementing heightened precautions due to increased levels of infection, an employer may need to impose stronger requirements for testing and masks. One client recently had a store in a county that was requiring masks, so it elected to have all stores in all counties wear a mask.
Consider job function
Consistent with CDC advice, OSHA recommends that even fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. Fully vaccinated people may choose to wear a mask regardless of community levels of transmission if they or someone in their household are at-risk or not fully vaccinated.
Unless otherwise provided by federal, state, or local requirements, workers who are outdoors may opt to not wear face coverings, unless they are at risk. Regardless, all workers should be supported in continuing to wear a face covering if they choose, especially in order to safely work closely with other people.
Note that some job functions will continue to require certain PPE, such as respirators, and masks are not substitutes for required PPE.