With respect to respirators, OSHA explains that these are “used to prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including airborne transmissible or aerosolized infectious agents.” When respirators are used they “must be provided and used in accordance with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard” which is contained at 29 CFR 1910.134. The use of a respirator requires “proper training, fit testing, availability of appropriate medical evaluations and monitoring, cleaning, and oversight by a knowledgeable staff member.” OSHA further explains that when respirators are necessary to protect workers, the employer must have a respiratory protection program compliant with OSHA’s standard. However, workers may voluntarily use filtering facepiece respirators or FFRs if permitted by the employer. If an employer does permit the voluntary use of FFRs, then employees must receive information that is contained in Appendix D of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard.
OSHA then seeks to clarify several questions specific to cloth face coverings. OSHA first explains that employers are not required to provide cloth face coverings, but may choose to do so as a feasible means of helping to control the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. For example, OSHA explains that an employer may choose to have workers use cloth face coverings “as a means of source control” when the risk of transmission cannot be controlled through other methods such as by enforcing social distancing or by using physical barriers.
OSHA further reminds employers that the General Duty Clause under the Occupational Safety and Health Act requires each employer to furnish a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Therefore, employers may decide to use a combination of engineering controls, administrative controls, as well as safe work practices such as social distancing and cloth face coverings (when actual PPE is not required for the particular working conditions). OSHA states that it “generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work” particularly to help wearers who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic from spreading the virus.
However, OSHA provides that “employers have the discretion to determine whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace based on the specific circumstances present at the work site.” Therefore, it is important for employers to carefully evaluate the appropriateness of cloth face coverings for the particular conditions that are present. Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate during certain job tasks, “employers can provide PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks, instead of encouraging workers to wear cloth face coverings.” OSHA also reiterates that cloth face coverings are not a substitute for other practices such as social distancing measures.
When respirators are necessary in a particular workplace, employers “must not use surgical masks or cloth face coverings” as a substitute. OSHA reminds employers that it has issued temporary guidance regarding enforcement discretion around the use of respirators, including extending the use or reuse of certain respirators, and/or using respirators that have been certified under the standards of other countries or jurisdictions.