Potential Risks of Face Masks & Coverings

Topics: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

By Brad Wilkins

Summary: Face coverings like cloth masks are worn by individuals to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, they can create some hazards when worn in the workplace. In this article, we’ll discuss the difference between N95 masks, surgical masks and cloth masks, the challenges they can pose to employees, and how employers can help mitigate the risks involved with wearing them.

Don’t Let Face Coverings Introduce New Hazards when Reopening Your Business

The most visible sign of the Coronavirus Era, and what is sure to become its most enduring symbol, is the cloth face covering. In fact, this simple cloth mask has become so ingrained in our public persona that it appears to have evolved beyond the strata of a serious protective device to serve the dual purpose of fashion accessory and, sometimes, a status symbol. Before we become immersed in picking colors, patterns and materials based on looks alone, let’s pause to make sure we understand these simple devices – and some of the hazards they present as businesses resume operations.

First, let’s set a background: in workplace safety and risk management, when confronting an identified hazard, the Hierarchy of Controls is a widely accepted method of working through potential solutions to achieve effective remediation. The diagram below, from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), shows the five possible levels of correction, in descending order:

hierarchy of controls
Many are surprised to know that the Personal Protective Equipment band, the solution that many individuals and companies reach for first to mitigate many hazards (including coronavirus prevention), is, unfortunately, the least effective. The ubiquitous cloth face masks that are now popular everywhere are not effective enough to be classified as PPE from a workplace safety standpoint – though from a regulatory aspect and employer responsibility aspect, they should be considered PPE. These definitions aside, cloth face coverings serve the critical purpose of helping to manage the risk at its source.

Overview of PPE

Generally, a face covering is a commercial or homemade cloth mask made from cotton or other materials, bandanas and similar items that cover an employee's mouth and nose. Importantly, the CDC lists five criteria for cloth face coverings to be effective. For purposes of this article and in keeping with common vernacular, the terms “face mask” and “face covering” are used interchangeably.

Personal protective equipment, commonly called “PPE,” is equipment that minimizes exposure to a variety of hazards. Examples of PPE include items such as gloves, slip-resistant shoes, safety glasses, earplugs, and full bodysuits. Surgical masks or N95 respirators are PPE that protect health care workers and other medical first responders from infectious agents such as COVID-19. However, cloth face coverings in their current form are not designed to protect the wearer. According to the CDC, masks and cloth face coverings are used to prevent the spread of the virus from the wearer to others. A similar example would be items worn to maintain sanitary conditions such as hairnets, neoprene gloves, and shoe covers in a food processing facility.

The Difference between N95 Respirators, Surgical Masks and Cloth Face Coverings

Here’s a quick look at the three common categories of protection in use:

N95 masks

n95 mask

An N95 mask is a NIOSH-certified air purifying respirator that, when properly fitted, captures 95% of large and tiny particles. It is a disposable, medical grade device that protects the wearer against airborne particles such as smoke, pollen, mold spores and allergens, to name a few. It is particularly effective against aerosol droplets, a primary transmission source of viruses such as COVID-19. Healthcare personnel must be trained and pass a fit test to establish a proper seal before using an N95 respirator in the workplace. Because of inordinate demand and limited supply, this gold standard of protection is being reserved for use by medical professionals and first responders; those directly interacting with sick and potentially infected persons and patients.

Surgical masks

surgical mask

Less protective than N95 respirators, the disposable, single use, surgical mask or medical mask is used to keep large particles such as droplets and liquids from a spray, liquid, cough or sneeze from entering the mouth or nose of the wearer, which is why they’re commonly worn by health professionals. They’re more loose fitting than a respirator and allow airborne particles in. They offer a level of protection from illness from others who are sick and can prevent the wearer from spreading illness to others. However, they are not approved by the FDA for protection against the coronavirus and the CDC states they are not to be considered respiratory protection. Even so, due to shortages of N95 respirators they are being used as an alternative to them in certain medical settings.

Cloth face coverings

cloth face mask

Cloth face masks can provide the same level of protection as the surgical mask, by blocking large particles and respiratory droplets. However, unlike N95 respirators and surgical masks, cloth coverings are abundant and reusable; provided they are washed in hot water and dried on high heat between wearings to eliminate potentially harmful viruses and bacteria trapped on the surfaces.

The Positives and Negatives of Wearing Face Masks

Face masks are essential in gatherings

The CDC estimates a 2-50% chance that people infected with COVID-19 do not have any symptoms but can spread the virus as readily as someone who is visibly sick. Therefore, masks should be worn whenever people gather in a community setting and especially indoor spaces where six-foot distancing is challenging to maintain, like workplaces in which employees are in close proximity.

Face masks can cause a false sense of security

Face masks can save lives, but they can put workers at risk and expose them to additional dangers. For example, donning a protective mask can lead to a false sense of security for the wearer. Risk compensation, also known as the Peltzman effect, occurs in tandem with safety measures intended to prevent injury or death, such as seat belts and bike helmets. It causes people to feel safer than they actually are - and to take risks they may not otherwise have considered, such as disregarding social distancing rules. Although masks may block some droplets containing coronavirus, the CDC says they do not provide the level of protection people assume. Masks also don’t protect the eyes, so airborne virus contained in saliva contacting the eye can cause an infection.

Face masks can create a host of workplace hazards

Employers should be conscious that in addition to face coverings having the potential to be uncomfortable and inconvenient, they might result in several significant but unanticipated hazards:
  • Heat stress
  • Psychological stress
  • Impaired vision (fogged eyeglasses, for instance)
  • Difficulties with verbal communication
  • Lapse in attention to a task
Problems caused by wearing a mask can create a resistance to the conscientious use of the mask. One essential aspect of training is to make the user aware of the need for covering the face and to instill motivation for the proper use, wearing and maintenance of the face coverings.

Face masks must be worn correctly

To be effective, face masks must fit well and be taken on and off correctly. The importance of proper use cannot be overstated. The CDC offers a concise guide to follow to don and doff masks. Employers bear responsibility for the proper use, care and storage of masks used during the workday – and more. Employers should follow federal, state and local laws regarding the wearing, maintenance, cleaning and storage of face masks. Like all other safety protocols, training and supervision are essential.

Face masks must be worn mindfully

Wearing a mask can have a host of downsides. Whether to adjust the fit or scratch an itch, people who wear masks tend to touch their faces more often. This can easily spread the virus from the hands to the face. Face touching is natural and often done subconsciously, so staying alert and cognizant that you are in a place where a hazard exists, requires situational awareness. If you touch the mask, wash your hands immediately.

Keeping your hands away from your face is not a natural circumstance. This is one of the reasons discussed above that PPE is in the least effective category. In the universe of safety, remedies that rely on human behavior are notoriously prone to failure, or at least to a momentary lapse. In the workplace, an essential component of training is to make the wearer aware not only of the need for the protective device but to foster knowledge and motivation for its proper use and maintenance.

Face masks must be maintained

Face masks should be laundered after every use (California Department of Public Health) or at least daily. If the mask is removed and put back on without washing, make sure the proper donning and doffing procedures are followed (such as not touching the covering), and that hands are thoroughly washed afterward. Put the coverings in a plastic bag until washing in hot, soapy water and dried on a hot cycle.

The need for frequent washing necessitates an adequate supply, commensurate with the workplace circumstances. Employers should be familiar with their requirements to provide face coverings to their workers and associated requirements.

Wrap-Up: Treat Safe Mask Use as a Priority

Training is critical when it comes to safety. Repetition of training, as often as can be accommodated, is essential, and especially so with procedures that are behavior-based, as mask-wearing is. At a minimum, make sure employees know how to wear their face coverings correctly:
  • Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before putting on the face covering
  • Place it over the nose and mouth and securely under the chin
  • Fit it snugly against the contours of the face
  • Do not compromise normal breathing
  • Masks should be carefully put on and taken off in order to prevent self-contamination
  • They should not be used by persons with chronic respiratory disease or children under age 2
  • Change out the mask on a formal period schedule aligned with work activity
  • Stow the mask safely when not in use and launder as needed or at least daily
The value of wearing face masks both in public places, and workplaces, can be substantial. Though it isn’t known definitively how much the use of masks will contribute to a decrease in transmission of the virus, studies are beginning to show a tangible effect in slowing its spread.

Like other safety measures the benefit of face coverings, both for the wearer and others, can be readily compromised by lapses in recognized procedures for their safe use. Examples include taking shortcuts, such as reusing a mask without proper laundering, or carelessness by touching the surface of the mask, or letting the discomfort or an ill fit lead to increased face touching. A face mask should not replace six-foot physical distancing, respiratory etiquette, and frequent hand-washing.

As employers, safety professionals and members of our communities, we must be vigilant to not misperceive the level of protection that a face mask confers, or let improper use or shortcuts lessen their protective benefit or introduce new or unanticipated hazards into the business operation.

Loss Control Services from AmTrust Financial

AmTrust’s Loss Control Department can help your small business assess the conditions, practices and processes of the workplace to help identify hazards in the workplace. We are dedicated to providing the right resources to create the most effective loss control program for your specific needs.

Addtionally, AmTrust has created a library of resources regarding the coronavirus to help support our agents and insureds during these challenging times. Policyholders also have access to over 700 streaming video training materials that include workplace safety, transportation safety, active shooter, emergency preparedness, human resources and more. For more information, please contact us today.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not legal, tax or business advice. Neither AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates represents or warrants that the information contained herein is accurate, appropriate or suitable for any specific business, tax or legal purpose. Readers seeking resolution of specific questions should consult their business, tax and/or legal advisors. Coverages may vary by location. Contact your local RSM for more information.

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