Are Cloth Face Masks Considered Personal Protective Equipment?

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is to practice social distancing, wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and wear a face mask. In most public places, people are prohibited from entering unless they are wearing a face mask. The simple act of wearing a face mask helps prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and infecting another person. This applies to workers as well, unless wearing a mask is not appropriate for the work environment. However, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), although cloth masks are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, there is not enough information currently available to determine whether cloth masks provide enough protection for them to be considered personal protective equipment (PPE).

In a press release issued by OSHA, workers are strongly encouraged to wear face masks, particularly when they are in close contact with other workers. However, considering statements by the CDC about the need for additional research on the effectiveness of cloth masks, including those that are made with a combination of materials that are effective at blocking and filtering, cloth face masks are recommended and often required, but they are not currently considered PPE under the agency’s standard. To be considered PPE, the mask must be meant to protect the person wearing it, which, in this case, is the worker. However, cloth masks are meant to protect others from COVID-19, so they are not considered PPE. That means that employers are not required to provide them to employers, or train them on how to properly use them.

Workers who believe their employer is not protecting them properly on the job or who have contracted COVID-19 are urged to contact an experienced Workers’ Compensation lawyer for assistance.

What are the Best Practices for Wearing a Cloth Mask Indoors?

OSHA recommends that all workers wear cloth face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, wearing a mask can be uncomfortable when working in certain work environments, including kitchens, bakeries, laundries, foundries, fire services, manufacturing facilities, and warehouses. Employees who work in hot and humid environments, or who perform physically strenuous work indoors or outdoors, may find cloth face masks uncomfortable. Employers are urged to take the following steps to ensure that their workers are protected against the spread of COVID-19:

  • Employers should make sure that all new and returning workers can adjust to wearing a mask in the current work conditions.
  • Managers should reinforce the importance of wearing a mask during meetings, group travel, or other situations in which workers are less than six feet apart.
  • When workers can maintain a distance of six feet apart, they should be allowed to remove their face masks for brief periods of time.
  • If some workers have difficulties with face masks, alternatives such as face shields should be considered. However, some of these alternatives are not as effective as face masks, so social distancing should be strictly enforced.
  • The work environment must be well ventilated, including the break rooms.
  • When possible, employers should allow workers to take their breaks in their vehicles, where they can use the air conditioning to cool off. Workers should be discouraged from going into the same car.
  • Employers should make sure that workers are wearing cloth masks that fit properly, and that are made of breathable, moisture-wicking material. Workers should replace wet cloth face coverings with dry ones, as wet masks make it more difficult to breathe and are less effective. Clean, dry replacement masks should be provided.
  • Workers should be encouraged to wash hands regularly and use hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Break areas and workstations should be designed so that workers maintain a minimum of six feet of physical distancing.
  • For employees who work outside, managers should schedule the more physically strenuous work for the cooler part of the day, such as first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon.
  • Supervisors should schedule frequent breaks when workers can rest, hydrate, and cool off while maintaining a socially distant six feet apart.
  • Workers should be trained on heat stress prevention and treatment, while ensuring that they are practicing safe COVID-19 protocols.

How Effective are Masks?

The COVID-19 virus is mainly spread from person to person through respiratory droplets when someone coughs, sneezes, talks, shouts, or sings. When these droplets land on another person, he or she can breathe those droplets in and contract the virus. Oftentimes, people who have COVID-19 do not have any of the common symptoms, yet they can still spread the disease. Cloth masks act as a physical barrier that stops these droplets from reaching other people. When worn correctly, over the mouth and the nose, masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly when people also practice safe social distancing.

The most effective masks are medical masks and N-95 respirators, but these are in critical supply and should be used only by health care workers. The following are different types of masks that are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 when worn properly.

  • Non-medical disposable masks: These are single-use masks that are meant to be disposed of after each use. If using this type of mask, it is recommended that people bring several extras in case one gets wet or dirty. As with any other type of mask, it is important that the mask fits close to the face and does not have any large gaps at the sides.
  • Cloth masks: The most effective fabrics include cotton, cotton blends, and other tightly woven fabrics; fabric that is breathable; and fabric that is made up of two or three layers. Less effective fabrics include loosely woven fabrics such as loose knits, masks made of plastic or leather, and single layer fabrics.
  • Cloth masks with a clear plastic panel: These are alternative options for people who may interact with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, people with disabilities, or anyone who needs to see the other person’s mouth to be able to interact and communicate effectively. When using this type of mask, the person must be able to breathe easily and that excess moisture must not collect on the inside of the mask.
  • Face shields: According to the CDC, face shields should not be used as a substitution for face masks, as they have large gaps below the chin and around the face. Respiratory droplets can escape through these gaps and reach other people in the vicinity. Face shields are primarily used to protect the eyes.

Why are Mask Policies Important?

Although cloth masks are not officially considered PPE, most employers require their workers to wear masks and provide them at no cost to the employee. In addition to preventing the spread of infection, providing masks and requiring all workers to wear them generally make employees more comfortable with coming into work each day. According to one employer, creating and enforcing a clearly defined mask policy can help reduce friction among employees who are worried about catching COVID-19 or spreading it to loved ones. Providing masks to employees can help them feel more comfortable and confident about going to work each day.

Am I Eligible for Workers’ Compensation Benefits if I Contract COVID-19?

If a worker’s health is compromised after they were exposed to hazardous material, toxic fumes, or any other health hazard while on the job, they will likely be eligible for Workers’ Compensation benefits. However, COVID-19 may or may not be considered an occupational illness. For an illness to be considered an occupational illness, it must arise out of and in the course of employment. The following factors must be met to meet this qualification:

  • There must be a direct and causal connection between the work conditions and the occupational illness.
  • The illness must have followed as a natural incident of the work as a result of the exposure caused by the nature of the employment.
  • The illness can be traced to the job and the probable cause.
  • The illness does not come from a hazard that the worker would have been equally exposed to outside of the job.

Simply contracting COVID-19 does not make a worker eligible for Workers’ Compensation. However, if the virus was contracted within the scope of their employment, the worker will likely be covered by Workers’ Compensation. To receive benefits, the employee must notify the employer immediately about the illness by filling out a Notice of Accident/Illness form. The employee must seek immediate medical attention and quarantine for the required number of days. In addition, the employee must complete the Claim for Compensation form and submit it to their employer. A skilled Workers’ Compensation lawyer can assist workers with every step of the claims process.

Baltimore Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Represent Workers with COVID-19 

If you were exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace, do not hesitate to contact the Baltimore Workers’ Compensation lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton as soon as possible. Masks and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, but if mask-wearing is not enforced or other workers do not follow COVID-19 safety protocols, it can put workers at risk of contracting the virus. Our dedicated legal team will assist you with the claims process and ensure that you receive the financial benefits you deserve. To schedule a free consultation, call us today at 844-556-4LAW (4529) or contact us online. Located in Baltimore, we serve clients throughout Maryland.