OSHA has published a series of frequently asked questions and answers regarding the use of masks in the workplace. The new guidance outlines the differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators, and reminds employers not to use surgical masks or cloth face coverings when respirators are needed. The guidance also notes the need for social distancing measures, even when workers are wearing cloth face coverings. The following are COVID-19 frequently asked questions and answers:

What are the key differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators?

Cloth face coverings may be commercially products or improvised garments, scarves, bandanas, or items made from t-shirts or other fabrics. They are worn in public over the nose and mouth to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2. However, they are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE) and will not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents due to loose fit and lack of seal.

Surgical Masks are typically cleared by the FDA as medical devices and are used to protect workers against splashes and sprays containing potentially infectious materials. They may also be worn to contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets and should be places on sick individuals to prevent the transmission of respiratory infection. However, they will not protect the wearer against airborne infection agents due to loose fit and lack of seal.

Respirators are used to prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including airborne transmissible agents. They must be provided and used in accordance with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, which includes, among other things, a need for proper filtering material and certification by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Are employers required to provide cloth face coverings to workers?

Cloth face coverings are not considered PPE and are not intended to be used when workers need such protection against exposure to occupational hazards. OSHA’s PPE standards do not require employers to provide them.

Should workers wear a cloth face covering while at work, in accordance with the CDC’s recommendation for all people to do so when in public?

OSHA recommends employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals. The CDC recommendation for all people to wear cloth face coverings should be followed in the work environment, if appropriate. However, employers have the discretion to determine whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace. Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate in the work environment (e.g. because they can become contaminated or exacerbate heat illness), employers can provide its own PPE instead.

If workers wear cloth face coverings, do employers still need to ensure social distancing measures in the workplace?

Yes—cloth face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing.

If I wear a reusable cloth face covering, how should I keep it clean?

CDC provides guidance on washing face coverings, which includes washing by hand or washing machine. OSHA suggests following those recommendations and always washing or discarding cloth face coverings that are visibly soiled.

Are surgical masks or cloth face coverings acceptable respiratory protection in the construction industry, where respirators are normally needed, but are not available due to the pandemic?

No—employers must not use surgical masks or cloth face coverings when respirators are needed. In general, employers should always rely on a hierarchy of controls that includes efforts to eliminate or substitute out workplace hazards, as well as engineering controls, administrative controls, and safe work practices, before relying on PPE. If respirators are needed but not available, and hazards cannot otherwise be adequately controlled through the hierarchy of controls, worker exposure to the hazard should be avoided.