6 min read

Face Coverings, Masks, and Respirators: What You Need to Know

Face Coverings, Masks, and Respirators: What You Need to Know

At the beginning of April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began recommending the use of face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures can be difficult to maintain to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Employers may be wondering what this means for the workplace – are they required to provide face coverings, what type of coverage should be worn, and what personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements apply, if any?

What Is a Face Covering, and Who Should Wear Them?

The face coverings recommended by the CDC are made from cloth and are not surgical masks or N95 respirators. The face coverings are meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by covering the face and nose of people who may have the virus but do not know it, which can help prevent the transmission to others. If employees choose to wear coverings, they should make sure the covering fits snugly but comfortably against the side of the face and be secured with ties or ear loops. The covering is typically fashioned from household materials at low cost and should include multiple layers of fabric but still allow for breathing without restriction. Coverings should be cleaned/laundered regularly, depending on the frequency of use. Coverings should also not be worn if they create a breathing problem for the wearer. For more information, please consult the CDC – DYI Sew and No Sew Face Covering Instructions.

Employers are not required to pay for face coverings for employees that choose to follow the CDC guidelines and voluntarily bring their own faces coverings to work. It is suggested that if an employer decides to require employees to wear coverings, that the employer either pays for the coverings or reimburses the employees. Requiring employees to wear face coverings could trigger other PPE requirements, such as a hazard assessment and training.

The CDC has advised the public to wear these face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some limited states and local jurisdictions are starting to issue executive orders for all businesses, or businesses with essential workers to provide and enforce face coverings for their employees. At the time of this writing, the Occupation Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has not issued a federal requirement for general use face coverings in the workplace. If a local jurisdiction does require these coverings, the employer must provide and pay for them as they would other types of PPE. Employers are encouraged to check their local requirements.

Why Is the CDC Recommending Face Coverings?

Based on research conducted by the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO), the current understanding of COVID-19 is based on what is known about similar coronaviruses. The virus is thought to be spread from person-to-person between people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet), through respiratory droplets that are produced when a person coughs or sneezes. It may be possible that the virus can also spread by a person touching surfaces or objects that have the virus on them and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. Face coverings are meant to protect people around you if you are infected but do not have symptoms of illness.

What Is the Difference Between a Surgical Mask and an N95?

OSHA and the CDC do not recommend surgical masks or N95 respirators as general-use masks in the workplace as protection against COVID-19. Both devices are considered critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other first responders.

Both surgical masks and N95 respirators are examples of PPE that are designed to protect the wearer from airborne particulates and liquids that could contaminate the face. Surgical masks, also known as face masks, are loose-fitting, disposable, and not meant to be used more than once. They are designed to help block large particulate droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatters to the nose and mouth. Surgical masks typically do not provide complete protection from germs because of the looser fit design.

N95 respirators are designed for a very close facial fit and are more efficient at filtering airborne particulates as well as germs. N95 refers to the ability of the respirator to filter out 95% of 0.3-micron test particles and is not resistant to oil. The N95 must be properly fitted to the user to be effective, and even then, do not eliminate the risk of exposure. N95 respirators are considered single-use devices and are not designed for children or people with facial hair. Examples of work environments that may require the use of N95 respirators include healthcare, woodworking, painting, or manufacturing operations.

Using Respirators for COVID-19

Unless workers are working directly with COVID patients, respirators are not recommended for use against COVID-19.

Respirator Requirements

All employers are required to conduct hazard assessments in the workplace to determine what could hurt their employees. Before providing any type of PPE, the employer must determine if the hazard could be eliminated through other means such as engineering or administrative controls. Once an employer has conducted hazard assessments for all work practices, PPE can be selected. Respirators are the type of PPE that employees wear when there is a known respiratory hazard present. The type of respirator is determined by the hazard. Safety Data Sheets (SDS) indicate what the permissible exposure limit (PEL) is for each material or chemical used in the workplace. The SDS specifies what type of respirator should be used if required. Because there are several types of respirators designed to protect workers against a variety of hazards such as insufficient oxygen environments, harmful dust, fogs, smokes, mists, gases, vapors, and sprays, the employer must provide the correct respirator to workers.

When an employer requires respirator use in the workplace, they must have a written respiratory program that includes:

  • Hazard Assessment – Performed anytime there is a change to the environment or when new materials are introduced. The best practice is also to review assessments if there is a workplace injury.
  • Training – In the care, use, cleaning, and maintenance initially, annually, and anytime there is a change to the program, hazard, or environment.
  • Medical Evaluations – Performed by a licensed healthcare provider (LHCP).
  • Fit Testing – Performed at least every 12 months.
  • Safety Observations – Ensuring equipment is used properly without additional hazards, and the program is reviewed regularly.
  • Recordkeeping – Employee fit testing records, training records, and written recommendations from LHCP.

Temporary Fit Testing Requirement Change

On April 8, 2020, OSHA expanded its temporary guidance regarding the national shortage of N95 respirators due to COVID-19. OSHA will be exercising enforcement discretion concerning annual fit-testing requirements if employers have made good-faith efforts to comply with the previous memorandum, which includes:

  • Federal respirator requirements.
  • Use only NIOSH-certified respirators.
  • Implement CDC & OSHA strategies for optimizing respirator supply.
  • Perform an initial fit test.
  • Inform workers that the employer is temporarily suspending annual fit testing.
  • Explain to workers the importance of performing user seal checks at each donning.
  • Conduct fit testing if visual changes to the employee’s physical condition could impact respirator fit (facial scarring, dental changes, cosmetic surgery, or obvious weight change).
  • Workers are reminded to inform a supervisor if the fit is compromised.

In the absence of fit-testing capabilities, it is recommended that employers reach out to respirator manufacturers/suppliers to see if there is an adequate substitute for the N95 for their use.

Additional Temporary Guidance

OSHA has also issued further interim enforcement guidance to help combat the national shortage of disposable N95 respirators stating that employers should continue to assess if there are ways to eliminate or control hazards in the workplace that necessitate the need for respirators. If respirators must be used, employers may consider the use of alternative classes of respirators that provide equal or greater protection compared to an N95. An example is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved, non-disposable, elastomeric respirators or powered, air-purifying respirators. Employers may also consider using respirators and filters certified under the following standards of other countries or jurisdictions:

  • Australia: AS/NZS 1716:2012
  • Brazil: ABNT/NBR 13694:1996; ABNT/NBR 13697:1996; and ABNT/NBR 13698:2011
  • People’s Republic of China: GB 2626-2006; and GB 2626-2019
  • European Union: EN 140-1999; EN 143-2000; and EN 149-2001
  • Japan: JMHLW-2000
  • Republic of Korea: KMOEL-2014-46; and KMOEL-2017-64
  • Mexico: NOM-116-2009

When these alternatives are not available, or where their use creates additional safety or health hazards, employers may consider the extended use or reuse of N95, or use of N95 that were approved but have since passed the manufacturer’s recommended shelf life, under specified conditions. Extending or reusing N95 respirators must be made on a case by case basis and the respirator must maintain its structural and functional integrity. The respirator cannot be physically damaged, soiled or contaminated and must be stored in a manner to protect the respirator. Inspections and seal checks must be completed prior to use and the respirator must be disposed of if it fails any of the above. Unused expired N95 respirators may be a better option than reuse, if available. Healthcare workers have additional requirements for reuse or extended use and must follow CDC respirator guidelines.

Voluntary Respirator Requirements

If an employer chooses to allow employees to wear respirators, including the N95 because of a non-COVID related hazard in the workplace but does not require usage, the employer must still follow the program requirements above with the exception of fit testing. Employees are not allowed to bring respirators to or from home.


Employers are encouraged to continue to monitor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), State and local health departments for up-to-date information related to COVID-19. Because not everyone that carries the virus will show symptoms, employers are encouraged to continue to take steps to limit employees’ potential exposure:

  • Practice physical distancing, staying at least 6 feet apart from others.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using our provided disinfectant wipes.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

For additional guidance, consult the Archbright KeyNote – Employer Response to Health Outbreaks. Eligible members can contact the Archbright HR Hotline with specific questions.

New and Changing Laws on the Horizon As Washington Employers Prepare for 2024

New and Changing Laws on the Horizon As Washington Employers Prepare for 2024

The holiday season is in full swing, and HR professionals know that means it's crunch time to wrap up any necessary end-of-year tasks and prepare for...

Read More
The Power of Employee Engagement: Cultivating a Thriving Workplace

The Power of Employee Engagement: Cultivating a Thriving Workplace

In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, employee engagement has emerged as a critical factor in determining an organization's success. It's...

Read More
How Effective Are Wage Transparency Laws?

How Effective Are Wage Transparency Laws?

It’s been months since Washington enacted its pay transparency law, RCW 49.58.110, which amended the Equal Pay and Opportunities Act. The law...

Read More