UPDATE: June 16: Last week, OSHA 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. It further reminds employers not to use surgical masks or cloth face coverings when respirators are needed. In addition, the guidance notes the need for social distancing measures, even when workers are wearing cloth face coverings, and recommends following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on washing face coverings.
Employers may decide whether to implement varying rules for different circumstances, OSHA said, pointing out that masks can sometimes create a hazard, conflict with other required equipment or create a barrier to accessible communication. In such situations, an employer could allow face shields or clear partitions, it said.
Additionally, because cloth face coverings aren't viewed as providing protection against exposure to occupational hazards, OSHA's standards do not require employers to provide them, the agency said.
Just as construction workers adapted to requirements regarding hard hats and safety glasses years ago, new personal protective equipment necessitated by the coronavirus is having an impact on U.S. jobsites.
While protective eyewear, gloves and even Tyvek suits are in use by contractors across the country in an effort to keep workers safe from COVID-19, the most ubiquitous tool for coronavirus protection — face coverings — have led to questions and in some cases, pushback, from workers who say they are uncomfortable and hot.
On the federal level, OSHA recommends that workers wear masks over their nose and mouth to prevent the spread of the virus, but many states and local jurisdictions have taken that a step further by requiring employee-provided PPE for workers who cannot remain 6 feet apart including in Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan and Washington, D.C., according to a tracker compiled by law firm Littler. Local regulations in cities and regions like the San Francisco Bay area and Boston also require face coverings on jobsites.
Washington state has some of the most stringent rules for contractors, requiring masks, gloves and eye protection at all times by every employee on a jobsite. “If appropriate PPE cannot be provided, the worksite must be shut down,” the mandate reads.
According to Littler, only three states — Iowa, Montana and Oklahoma — do not have any type of face covering recommendation for residents or businesses.
Because of the varying guidance in different jurisdictions, it’s imperative that contractors understand what enforcement authorities in their markets say, according to attorney Brad Hammock, co-chair of Littler's Workplace Safety & Health Practice Group, who said that measures for noncompliance could include fines or penalties.
“Every enforcement mechanism is probably a little different,” he said.
For instance, in New York City, building inspectors are showing up unannounced and issuing fines, according to the New York Times. Laborers there are wearing respiratory masks not only while working but also during breaks.
No matter the government regulations, safety managers say the best practice is to ensure that workers have face masks on at all times. For instance, Rockland, Massachusetts-based Integrated Builders requires its workers to wear face coverings on all jobsites, according to Jay Dacey, CEO.
“One of our major priorities is the health and safety of our team, we have adopted face coverings into our daily life and will continue following all necessary protocols of COVID-19 as required and update as necessary,” he said.
Jim Goss, senior safety consultant at HCSS Construction Software, said face coverings are a critical component of contractors’ COVID-19 safety plans and are imperative for situations when workers cannot maintain a distance of 6 feet or more.
Despite the obvious benefits of face coverings, there are many challenges to their adoption. While it’s easy to convince workers in areas that have been hard hit of the importance of coronavirus-related PPE, workers in less affected regions often don’t see the need for protection, Goss said.
“In Buffalo where I’m from we’ve had thousands cases of coronavirus so the men and women on the jobsites here have had no problem with wearing face coverings, they felt they had to do it,” he said. “But in rural parts of New York state there are counties that have only had a few cases, so it’s harder to present the value of PPE.”
What’s more, young workers especially feel invincible. “It’s the ‘It-can-never-happen-to-me’ syndrome that we see all the time in construction,” he said.
Patrolling sites to see who is not complying isn’t always practical, said Hammock, who has visited jobs where workers have not been wearing masks.
“Construction sites are so big and everyone's kind of spread out so it’s very difficult to make sure employees are actually following the rules," he said.
Summer will bring its own challenges, with employees saying that masks are particularly uncomfortable, hot and claustrophobic in the heat. “Summer will absolutely be challenging to ensure compliance,” Goss said.
To ensure that employees comply with company face covering policies, Hammock and Goss recommend the following steps:
- Set clear, companywide expectations about the use of face coverings. “There should be no ambiguity,” Hammock said.
- Communicate the importance of all types of coronavirus prevention, said Goss. Have managers talk about it during toolbox talks and other meetings. “The key here is training and educating our workers to understand what the potential issues are,” he said.
- Ensure that managers, supervisors and foreman wear face coverings. “If you don't have that from your leadership there is virtually no way you’re going to get full buy-in from employees,” said Hammock.
- Make it easy for your employees to obtain and maintain masks.
- Remind workers that the virus is fast spreading and invisible. A seemingly safe area one day could become a hotspot the next week.
- Tell employees that it's their responsibility to keep themselves and their coworkers safe.
Safety managers had similar issues around adoption of other forms of PPE such as fall protection and the use of high visibility gear, which are now commonplace on sites, Goss said, adding that the move to face coverings and other coronavirus protection will take some time and work to make it a regular part of jobsite safety methods.
“It’s just about educating workers on the need for this new PPE," he said.