OSHA: Surgical Masks Create "potential contaminants in the immediate environment"

Question: Is it permissible to allow surgical masks to be worn on a voluntary basis when respiratory protection is not required to meet any OSHA standards? And if so, is it permissible for employers to provide surgical masks for voluntary use?

Response: Yes. The employer may allow the voluntary use of surgical masks even where an exposure assessment shows respirator use is not required and the employer may provide surgical masks for voluntary use. However, surgical masks may not be used in lieu of required respiratory protection. Surgical masks are not considered respirators by OSHA and, as such, are not covered by 29 CFR 1910.134. They are fluid resistant, disposable, and loose-fitting protection that create a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment. They are commonly used in health care settings for the protection of the patient and they are also often used to prevent splashes from contacting the face of the wearer. However, surgical masks do not seal tightly to the wearer’s face, nor do they provide a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles.

If the hazard to which your employees are exposed to is a combination of splashes and respirable contaminants, your company may want to consider NIOSH approved surgical N95 respirators which also are cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a surgical mask. Surgical N95s are filtering facepiece respirators equipped with spray- or splash-resistant facemask material on the outside to protect the wearer from splashes. Regardless of which type is used, the employees should be informed on the different varieties and their unique set of cautions, limitations, and restrictions of use. This information will facilitate employee involvement in the respirator program and/or the overall safety and health program.

https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2017-12-20

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