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November 20, 2020
OSHA: Face coverings not PPE

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not consider cloth face coverings personal protective equipment (PPE), the agency said on November 18 in an update to its frequently asked questions (FAQs) about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

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OSHA revised its advice for employers following an updated scientific brief from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about community use of cloth face masks to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The CDC now recommends the use of masks, especially nonvalved multilayer cloth masks, to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

Cloth masks can both block the mask wearer’s exhaled respiratory droplets and particles and offer the wearer some personal protection through droplet and particle filtration, according to the CDC.  However, the filtration effectiveness of different masks has varied widely across the studies so far performed due to differences in study design and the particle sizes analyzed, the CDC said.

One study found that during a COVID-19 outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, servicemembers who practiced precautions, including avoiding common areas, practicing physical distancing, and wearing face masks, had a lower infection rate than servicemembers who did not report taking precautions. The use of face coverings on board was associated with a 70% reduced risk, according to the CDC.

A study of a high-exposure event, when two symptomatically ill hair stylists interacted for an average of 15 minutes with 139 clients during an 8-day period, found that none of the 67 clients who subsequently agreed to an interview and testing developed an infection. The stylists and clients all complied with a local ordinance and company policy to wear face masks while in the salon.

Despite encouraging reports from the CDC, OSHA does not believe there is enough information currently available to determine whether any particular cloth face covering provides enough protection from SARS-CoV-2 to be considered PPE under the agency's standard. The CDC indicated that more research is needed to determine the blocking and filtration effectiveness of various materials.

The design, construction, and fabric selection of a mask all can have a substantial impact on the overall effectiveness of a face covering as personal protection. OSHA acknowledged current efforts to develop a consensus standard on the design and performance of face coverings at ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials).

OSHA continues to encourage workers to wear face coverings, if appropriate in work environments, when in close contact with others to reduce the risk of spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Three states so far—Virginia, Michigan, and Oregon—have established emergency temporary standards (ETSs) for workplace COVID-19 exposures, and each has different requirements for face coverings. Oregon’s rule requires cloth face coverings in indoor spaces, regardless of physical distancing. Michigan requires employers to provide face masks at no cost to employees.

A proposed ETS in California also would require employers to provide no-cost face coverings, as well as no-cost COVID-19 testing. There is no federal ETS for workplace COVID-19 exposures. OSHA has cited employers for violations of the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, along with violations of recordkeeping, reporting, and respiratory protection standards. The agency so far has proposed penalties totaling $2,851,533.

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