Face coverings (cloth or surgical masks) are now a common sight in public spaces. While face masks do not protect the wearer, they may help reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in places (public transit, grocery stores) where physical distancing is not possible.
How does COVID-19 spread?
When an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks, respiratory droplets are released into the air and may be inhaled by those around them. According to public health agencies, these droplets can cover a distance of 6 feet (2 metres).
Do face masks provide protection?
In places where it is not possible to keep a 6-foot distance from other people, face masks provide a barrier to prevent respiratory secretions from entering the air. However, they will not protect you from getting COVID-19.
Do I need to make face masks mandatory for my staff?
Face coverings may be helpful in workplaces where physical distancing is not possible, and close contact with the public or among the employees is unavoidable.
It is advisable that you conduct a COVID-19 exposure risk assessment for your staff while considering a policy on use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
What does PPE include?
PPE is used to minimize exposure to hazards where eliminating the hazard altogether is not possible. It includes face masks, safety glasses, gowns, gloves, etc., and is usually the last line of defence in the hierarchy of health and safety controls.
When creating a return to work plan, it is essential to first put in place engineering controls (physical distancing, Plexiglass barriers, etc.) and administrative controls (staggered shifts, remote work, symptom screening, etc.). Personal hygiene is the third level in the hierarchy of controls. It includes educating your staff on hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette (sneezing or coughing into your elbow).
It is critical that you implement the use of face masks in your workplace in combination with other health and safety controls.
What are the different types of face masks available?
There are three types of face masks you can use:
Disposable respirators (such as N95)
Health care professionals use these masks to protect themselves while treating infected people. Due to shortage of medical masks for health care workers, it is advised that non health care employers not use these masks in their workplace.
These may not provide much protection to the wearer from inhaling respiratory droplets, but they can reduce the spread of germs from the wearer to other people. These are single use masks and must be disposed of after use.
These masks may offer some measure of protection to people around the wearer by preventing wide spread of respiratory secretions. However, they are not designed to make a seal around the nose and mouth. Please ensure the cloth mask you choose or sew has at least two layers of tightly woven fabric such as cotton or linen. Cloth masks must be washed before being reused.
The governments of Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario have issued guidelines on how to wear, fit, remove and clean face masks. You can also read the Government of Canada’s guidelines on how to safely use a non-medical mask here.
What precautions are essential while using face masks?
If you are considering a policy on use of face masks in the workplace, it is critical that you train your staff on how to put on and use a non-medical mask. They must also be apprised of proper hand hygiene measures. Not following the dos and don’ts may increase the risk of infection.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Use the ear loops to put on and remove the mask.
- Wash your hands immediately before and after touching the mask. If there is no hand washing station available, the employer should provide hand sanitizers to the staff to disinfect their hands.
- Make sure the mask fits well around your nose and mouth. Avoid touching the mask while using it.
- Do not remove the mask to talk to someone.
- Change your mask when it feels slightly wet or gets dirty. It should always be clean and dry.
- Store reusable masks in a clean bag until you wear it again.
You can read the complete list of dos and don’ts here. Please note that some workers may not wish to wear a mask due to underlying medical conditions (such as asthma, eczema) that make using face coverings uncomfortable.
Want to know your employer obligations surrounding COVID-19 health and safety?
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