By Reagan Nickl
Director of Partner and Customer Success

On April 3, the CDC officially recommended face masks or coverings for essential employees and anyone else venturing out into public spaces. In addition, the CDC also provided instructions for how to make fabric face coverings. While good information, the guidance left much up to interpretation. As a result, many companies are issuing COVID-19 workplace face mask guidance to help employees cope.

Employer face mask guidance should expand on the information provided by the CDC, while accounting for workplace-specific variables not mentioned in broad guidelines. Here’s a quick rundown of how to ensure employees understand and follow proper face mask guidelines at work.

Supply face masks or recognize proper PPE

First, ensure all employees have acceptable face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). N95 respirators differ from surgical masks, which differ from cloth face coverings. The CDC recommends these face coverings (in that order), but the style of face coverings can vary greatly.

To prevent everything from pulled-up turtlenecks, to bandanas, to scarves and other oddities in the workplace, an employer’s best course of action is to provide standardized face masks or PPE. Standardizing face masks will come at an expense for the company, but will save headaches in the long-run.

Encourage proper usage

It’s one thing to wear a face mask; it’s another to wear it properly. Thankfully, both the CDC and OSHA provide clear and specific steps for how to wear face masks. Per OSHA recommendations:

  • It should fit properly, to cover the face from the bridge of the nose to the chin
  • Clean hands properly before putting the face mask on or taking it off
  • Only touch the cord or elastic at the back of the face mask when removing it

Provide mask-wearing instructions to every employee and enforce proper usage at all times. An office-wide memo and workplace signage are both great reminders. There are also guidelines for how to handle disposable vs. reusable face masks. Make these instructions easy-to-follow and readily available.

In addition, it’s also a good idea to provide guidance on what to do with masks when not wearing them. For example, don’t set them down in shared areas or collect them from people to throw away. Emphasize personal accountability when it comes to face mask use and etiquette.

Practice proper mask etiquette

Teaching employees how to wear masks is only the first step. Beyond that, educate them on good mask etiquette. This includes everything from how to talk to other people while wearing a mask, to not touching your mask obsessively while wearing it. Some of the chief points to hit include:

  • Don’t reuse single-use masks
  • When discarding, place masks directly in the trash
  • Avoid touching your mask absent-mindedly
  • Don’t touch anyone else’s mask for any reason
  • Don’t lift masks to breathe deeply past them
  • Don’t share masks for any reason

If these seem like common sense instructions, it’s because they are. They bear repeating if not for the sake of having steadfast rules you can point to as standard operating procedure. In much the same way employees know not to play loud music or walk around barefoot, mask etiquette should be second nature to them.

Address respiratory concerns

Not everyone can wear a face mask all day long. Be mindful of the needs of employees with respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD. More importantly, make exemptions to the standardized face mask policy clear and apparent, to ease the minds of those who qualify.

Ideally, these individuals benefit from remote work setups. When this isn’t possible, work to accommodate them with minimal invasiveness in the physical workplace. Try to provide an isolated work environment or create workstations away from high-traffic areas. Employers can also explore lightweight cloth face masks for individuals with respiratory concerns, which allow better airflow. Some sort of face covering is imperative, as these individuals have fragile airways that may be more susceptible to COVID-19.

Ultimately, it comes down to good respiratory etiquette for these individuals. Cough or sneeze into the crook of the elbow, and try to breathe through the nose whenever possible. Maintain at least six feet of distance at all times.

Post guidelines and answer questions

The simplest thing employers can do to encourage proper face mask usage is to post guidelines throughout the workplace. This can be a few signs in common areas or a poster at the entrance. Email memos are also effective reminders. Answer common questions and preempt confusion with clear, specific, actionable information. Employers that take the time to create COVID-19 workplace face mask guidance benefit from employees who feel confident and safe using PPE.

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