Employers Get Advice on Face Coverings at Work

03 Feb, 2021 Nancy Grover


Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Along with whether, how and when to return employees to the workplace, employers may also be confronted with the controversial issue of face coverings. The highly-charged issue is touted as a tool to help protect the spread of the coronavirus. Employers considering or mandated to use these should have clear policies in place to encourage compliance and prevent contention.

While the federal government recommends face coverings in the workplace, some states actually require them. In fact, 45 states have some type of mandate.

“Many state laws say employees in high contact jobs wear them in certain industries – hair dressers, restaurant workers, grocers, those making high contact with others. Many counties and cities have their own requirements. It’s the responsibility of the employer to stay up to date,” said Robin Nitro, a human resources consultant with KPA. “As COVID cases continue to rise, many places are reinforcing or expanding their requirements.”

During a webinar yesterday, Nitro outlined the differences in types of face coverings, and how employers can best address the issue.

Masks vs. Coverings

Whether a ‘mask’ or ‘face covering’ the idea is to help protect the wearer and/or those around him by providing a barrier to prevent the spread of droplets. Masks — such as respiratory masks, N95s or surgical masks, are considered personal protection equipment and are designed to protect the wearer. Face coverings protect those who come in contact with the wearer.

“Many industries are required to provide masks and other forms of PPE,” Nitro said. “If you know your industry is governed by OSHA, then all regulations should be checked and abided by. It’s important to note a cloth face covering would not be considered a substitute where PPE is required.”

Face coverings, on the other hand, are not highly regulated.  They can be made of any type of cloth that covers the nose and face, such as a t-shirt or bandana. Two layers are best.

“When requiring or recommending the use of face coverings at work, training is not required. But we highly recommend you do train them,” Nitro said. It will help them follow the requirement/recommendation.”

Employer Responsibilities

Among the main questions regarding face coverings in the workplace is who pays. In some cases, state or local orders will specify who bears that responsibility.

“If it’s unclear who should cover the cost, it’s recommended to seek legal counsel,” Nitro said. “Another option is for the employer to err on the side of covering the cost. That’ll be the least likely to cause issues later on.”

Implementing clear and concise policies around face coverings is also imperative to avoid problems, Nitro advised. These should include specifics on why, as well as when and how they must be worn.

“Explain why they are important — to your employees, your workplace, to you. This’ll help them understand why the company is implementing a policy, why it adds value to your workplace, that it’s a way to protect each other and those most at risk,” Nitro said. “Ensuring they understand these points will help them be on your side and be more likely to comply, and  it can ease anxieties they may have about it.”

Training on the policy is also vital. Employees should be shown how to put on and take off the face covering, how it should be worn on the face, and how to clean it.  

“Be clear on where and when to wear them,” Nitro said. “For example, they should place the covering on before they enter the building, anytime not in their private office, walking halls, going to bathroom … employees riding in a car together,” she said. “Make sure every potential aspect of their job they may be going through is explained in the policy. It’s best not to leave any room for ambiguity.”

Finally, the policy should include the consequences of refusing to wear a face covering. “Bringing this up up front will help prevent issues later,” Nitro said. “Handle all situations in a similar, unbiased way; not with anger or out of the blue. You want to be prepared for anything that arises.”

Refusing Face Covering Requirements

There are a variety of reasons many people don’t want to wear face coverings. In addition to the comfort factor or political reasons, there may be medical complications or religious concerns.

“If an employee can’t wear a face covering, enter into the interactive process,” Nitro said. “It can require medical certification stating they are unable to wear [the covering] and potentially list out alternative accommodations.”

To avoid potential problems and foster compliance, Nitro recommends a three-step process for those who will not abide by the face covering requirement.

  1. Step one — find out the reason.
  2. Step two — speak to the employee privately. “Explain why the company has decided to implement the policy. Find out if there is any common ground,” Nitro said. “Also talk to them about their concerns. Find out what is going on. Knowing them, see if you can provide a solution.”
  3. Step three — “If worker still refuses, then it may be time to proceed with disciplinary actions. Run through any alternatives first; finding what the reason is, trying to reason with them. but if you can’t it’s a violation of the policy,” unless it is for a protect reason.  “It could potentially result in employee being sent home, a possible writeup. You want to make sure any disciplinary action is well thought out ahead of time.”

Trying to work with the employee to the extent possible is best. “A big concern is they may speak to their coworkers and encourage them to ignore the policy,” Nitro said. Have the proper information and documentation about why it’s good for the workplace. Next, say ‘hey we understand you don’t like this, we’ll try to do all that is possible to make it comfortable, but at this time we need you to just comply with the policy. We’d love your feedback. We understand.’ If they still refuse, if it’s a policy to come into work, it could result in the person being sent home.”



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    About The Author

    • Nancy Grover

      Nancy Grover is a freelance writer having recently retired as the Director, Media Services for WorkersCompensation.com. She comes to our company with more than 35 years as a broadcast journalist and communications consultant. Grover’s specialties include insurance, workers’ compensation, financial services, substance abuse, healthcare and disability. For 12 years she served as the Program Chair of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. A journalism/speech graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, Grover also holds an MBA from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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