OSHA Issues COVID-19 FAQs about Respirators, Face Masks, and Face Coverings

By Conn Maciel Carey’s COVID-19 Task Force

As COVID Spring transitions to COVID Summer, wearing some form of face covering has become the new norm, especially in workplaces all across the country.  Many employers operating essential businesses, as well as non-essential business that have begun to reopen, have sought to provide or require some form of respirator, face mask, or face covering for employees.  Given OSHA’s particular emphasis on respiratory protection throughout the pandemic and for the foreseeable future, it is important for employers to be aware of the OSHA guidelines and obligations regarding respirators and face coverings in the workplace.

Depending on the type of face mask used, and whether it is mandated by the employer or merely permitted for voluntary use, there are certain requirements that employers must follow under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard, 29 C.F.R. 1910.134, and perhaps  other regulations.  Last week, OSHA issued a series of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about face coverings to help employers navigate obligations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.Face Covering FAQs

As a starting point, let’s level-set the type of equipment we are talking about.  N95 masks, although they are called masks and look like masks, are actually considered by OSHA to be respirators.  Of course, anything more substantial than an N95 mask, such as half- or full-face tight-fitting face pieces with a filtering medium, are also considered by OSHA to be respirators.  Use of that type of equipment in the workplace, whether it is required by the employer or permitted for voluntary use, triggers numerous duties under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard that we will discuss below.  On the other hand, simple paper or cloth masks, like dental or surgical masks, are not considered to be respirators, and do not trigger any requirements under 1910.134.

Let’s start this discussion with the more ubiquitous face coverings that are NOT considered to be respirators, and also are not considered to be personal protective equipment (PPE).

Paper or Cloth Face Masks

Setting aside respirators for the moment, if your workplace is permitting or even requiring use of some form of a loose-fitting paper or cloth mask, or even a generic face covering like a bandana or one of the DIY masks that CDC has been promoting for general use by the public, none of those is considered to be a respirator, AND none of those is even considered to be a form of PPE.

As a general rule, Continue reading