The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has issued new guidance on the use of cloth face coverings, including recommendations for when face coverings may not be appropriate in the workplace. The CDC guidance supplements OSHA’s ‘Frequently Asked Questions” on the use of cloth face masks that were published in early June.
According to the CDC, cloth face coverings “are recommended as a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the cloth face covering coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice.” The guidance notes that the use of cloth face coverings “is particularly important in settings where people are close to each other or where social distancing is difficult to maintain.”
The CDC Guidance is less clear in its recommendations on the use of face shields. “It is not known if face shields provide any benefit as source control to protect others from the spray of respiratory particles. CDC does not recommend use of face shields for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings.”
Significantly, the Guidance also acknowledges that cloth face coverings may not always be practical or feasible. “In some situations, wearing a cloth face covering may exacerbate a physical or mental health condition, lead to a medical emergency, or introduce significant safety concerns.” Additionally, the CDC notes that such coverings are not appropriate in certain workplaces:
People who work in a setting where cloth face coverings may increase the risk of heat-related illness or cause safety concerns due to introduction of a hazard (for instance, straps getting caught in machinery) may consult with an occupational safety and health professional to determine the appropriate face covering for their setting. Outdoor workers may prioritize use of cloth face coverings when in close contact with other people, like during group travel or shift meetings, and remove face coverings when social distancing is possible.
The CDC Guidance does not address another tricky issue: what to do if an employee shows up at work wearing a mask with a political statement (think “Trump 2020” or a Confederate flag). If an employer has a policy prohibiting political messages or clothing in the workplace, that would apply to masks as well. But even without such a policy, an employer could require that the mask meet safety guidelines and not have pictures, statements or images. As long as the employer is consistent in the enforcement of this policy (which means banning “Breast Cancer Awareness” and sports team logos along with masks bearing political statements), the employer’s rule is defensible.