Yesterday the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Frequently Asked Questions that explain the differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators. The key points are as follows:
- Cloth face coverings do not constitute personal protective equipment.
- Surgical masks are not considered to be PPE if they are being used solely to contain the respiratory droplets of the person wearing them (referred to by OSHA as “source control”).
- Although employers are not required to provide their employees with cloth face coverings or surgical masks, the use of such face coverings and/or surgical masks would constitute part of “a control plan designed to address hazards from SARS-CoV-2” under the General Duty Clause.
As OSHA explains, “Employers may choose to use cloth face coverings as a means of source control . . . [where] transmission risk cannot be controlled through engineering or administrative controls, including social distancing.” OSHA also reiterates guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that cloth face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing. And finally, OSHA emphasizes that surgical masks and cloth face coverings, including in the construction industry, are not an acceptable substitute where respirators are required due to exposures to contaminants such as asbestos or silica. According to this latest OSHA guidance, if respirators are not available where a Permissible Exposure Limit is exceeded, worker exposure should be avoided by delaying the task until feasible control measures are available to reduce the exposures below the PEL.
By providing this additional information and clarification of an acceptable control plan, OSHA may be signaling that it is more likely to begin issuing citations under the General Duty Clause for an employer’s failure to adequately protect employees from COVID-19. Any such citation must be approved by the National Office, but the agency’s almost exclusive reliance on voluntary compliance may be changing.