Wearing surgical masks during cold and flu season
Date Posted: 10/07/2019
You should know the rules for voluntary versus mandatory use of dust masks, but what about voluntary use of surgical masks? Employees who purchase their own masks for voluntary use might obtain surgical masks, perhaps simply choosing to wear them during the cold and flu season.
In a letter of interpretation dated December 20, 2017 (but only recently posted on OSHA’s website), the agency noted that employers may allow employees to voluntarily wear surgical masks when respiratory protection is not required. Employers may even provide surgical masks for voluntary use without creating additional obligations for themselves.
Another letter from April 26, 2018, noted that even if an employer allows the voluntary use of respirators (and agrees to pay for them), OSHA does not consider this to become mandatory use. Paying for voluntary-use products like surgical masks does not obligate the employer to follow the requirements of the respiratory protection standard.
What OSHA says
Surgical masks create a barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants. They do not seal tightly to the wearer's face, nor do they provide a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles.
In the 2017 letter, OSHA noted that surgical masks are not considered respirators and are not covered by the respiratory protection standard at 29 CFR 1910.134. This means they cannot be used in place of mandatory respirators.
Surgical masks can protect the wearer from splashes, but may also be worn by people who are ill to protect other employees from infection. They are commonly used in health care settings to protect patients, and to prevent splashes from contacting the face of the wearer.
OSHA pointed out that if a hazard assessment indicates a potential for a combination of splashes and airborne contaminants, employers may want to consider N95 respirators equipped with spray- or splash-resistant facemask material to protect the wearer from splashes.
Regardless of which type or respirator is used, the employees should be informed on the different varieties of protection available, as well as the any cautions, limitations, and restrictions of use.