When Masks are Required

Last updated: October 31, 2022

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Background

These common questions and answers are based on L&I rules and regulatory policy related to COVID-19 and the use of face coverings, facemasks, and respirators.

This information is being updated as new questions come in.

Businesses and workers should also use the following guidance documents for additional information on required face coverings and mask use based on the level of risk for various job tasks:

General Information

What are masks?

The word “mask” is used broadly to include N95s and other respirators, KN95s, medical procedure masks, surgical masks, and face coverings.

Why wear a mask at work?

Masks are useful and important for 2 reasons:

  • To protect the wearer from getting COVID-19 from others who might be contagious.
  • As a type of “source control” to be worn by someone who has COVID-19 and may be contagious to others around them.

When are masks required?

Mask use is mandated by state order for:

  • Hospitals, dentist offices, medical facilities, and other health care settings.
  • Long-term care settings, including home care, home health and home hospice.
  • Correctional and jail facilities, except for facilities in areas where the community level is low.

For all other employers, a COVID-19 hazard assessment will need to be conducted to determine whether masks, along with other known COVID-19 prevention measures like physical distancing, barriers, and ventilation improvements, are necessary to protect workers.

Individuals with COVID-19 who return to work around others may remain contagious for up to 10 days; employers should take steps to protect others who work around them (e.g., require use of masks as a “source control”.)

Can my employer require me to wear a mask if L&I doesn’t?

Yes. When masking isn’t required by L&I, state order, or by some other state or local regulation, your employer can still require you to mask up. For exemptions see “Medical and Disability Considerations” below.

Are employers required to provide masks?

Employers must provide employees masks for free when use is required. The employer must immediately replace an employee's mask upon request, when recommended by the manufacturer, and when it becomes contaminated, wet, dirty, or damaged.

If a mask is required, can it be removed during lunch?

Yes, but social distancing needs to be maintained.

Is physical distancing still important when I’m required to wear a mask?

Mask use doesn’t replace physical distancing. Strict physical distancing may not always be possible, but keeping people separated when there is room is important at times when the COVID-19 community level is of concern or when indicated by a COVID-19 hazard assessment.

If masks aren’t required, can an employee wear one anyway?

Yes, however, employers have certain responsibilities to ensure and inform about safe use when employees want to wear masks voluntary. For more information on voluntary use, see:

If my employer requires me to wear a medical procedure mask, can I choose to upgrade to an N95?

You may choose to voluntarily upgrade to a more protective mask as long as it won’t create safety or security issues.

Working With Customers and Clients

Can a business require customers to wear a mask?

With some exceptions, health care, long-term care, and correctional and jail facilities are required by state order to ensure workers and customers, clients, and other visitors wear a mask.

Other businesses can opt to require customers to wear a mask.

Businesses covered by the state order must also:

  • Take steps to engage customers to ensure face coverings are being worn and avoid creating potentially violent situations.
  • Include, in the company's Accident Prevention Program, customer masking policy and procedures for COVID-19 that effectively address how customers and visitors without masks will be accommodated (for example, use of delivery service)
  • Have a supervisory or management person(s) available to address issues, when necessary.

Are businesses covered by the state order required to have an employee at each entrance to check on customer masking?

No. However, each employer must decide if having an employee at each entrance is needed to ensure the effectiveness of their COVID-19 customer masking program.

Respirators

Can the filter material of an N95 respirator protect the wearer from the virus that causes COVID-19?

Yes. "N95" refers to a class of respirator filter material that removes at least 95% of very small (0.3 microns) particles from the air.

Although the "naked" virus is approximately 0.1 microns in size, when expelled into the air from an infected person, it isn’t naked, but clumped together with many viruses in a coating of saliva or mucous resulting in a much larger sized particle (or droplet) that is easily trapped by the N95 filter material.

How important is the fit of an N95?

In addition to the filter material, N95s and elastomeric respirators rely on a tight face seal to protect the wearer. A fit test, when performed correctly, challenges the respirator’s seal to rule out models and sizes that don’t provide an adequate fit to a particular person’s face.

Fit-tested respirators can have seal problems. This is why seal checks are a necessary routine each time a person puts on their tight-fitting respirator. A seal check isn’t as exact as a fit-test, but it helps ensure the respirator is properly positioned on, and sealing correctly to, the face. If the respirator fails to inflate and collapse during a seal check, inspect it to see if it’s worn out or damaged and needs replacement.

Fit testing and seal checks are required when respirators are required. Although fit-testing and seal check aren’t required when respirators are used voluntarily, they are recommended.

What about N95 respirators with exhalation valves?

The exhalation valve on any respirator is designed to seal shut during inhalation and open when the wearer exhales.

An exhalation valve, when open during exhalation, can be penetrated by splashed liquids, so respirators with exhalation valves may not be used in settings where there is risk for splashes of blood or other potentially infectious body fluids. In such situations, some models of filtering facepiece or elastomeric respirators are available without an exhalation valve.

When considering the use of an N95 respirator with an exhalation valve in the workplace, also evaluate the risk for transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 from the wearer of the respirator to employees around the wearer (see next question).

Are N95 respirators with exhalation valves acceptable to protect people around the wearer from exposure to the COVID-19 virus?

If the wearer has COVID-19, there is some risk for exhaling unfiltered virus-containing air through the exhalation valve and transmitting the infection to others, especially during face-to-face interactions.

To reduce this risk, N95 respirators with exhalation valves may be modified as described in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) publication number 2021-107.

Per NIOSH, the preferred way is to place an electrocardiogram (ECG) pad or surgical tape over the exhalation valve from the inside of the respirator. If that is not possible, a surgical mask instead may be stretched over the outside of the respirator. These modifications should be evaluated by the respirator program administrator to ensure they don’t conflict with medical protocols and NIOSH Respirator Approval Program standards.

May N95 respirators with exhalation valves be used in settings where a sterile field must be maintained?

No. Regardless of modifications, N95 respirators with exhalation valves may not be used in settings where a sterile field must be maintained, such as in an operating or procedure room while performing an invasive procedure. In these situations, a "surgical" N95 respirator with additional approved by the FDA is required.

What safety requirements do I need to follow if my employees must use respirators?

Employers must follow requirements in the Respirators rule, Chapter 296-842 WAC when respirators are worn to protect the wearer.  Requirements include a written Respiratory Protection Program that ensure medical evaluations, fit testing, and training so employees can safely and effectively use respirators. Online resources such as program templates, medical evaluation questionnaires, and training materials are available at www.Lni.wa.gov/COVIDsafety . Employers can also contact L&I Safety Consultants for direct assistance by phone, email, or on-site visit.  

When respirators are required solely for “source control” purposes, employers may consider use as voluntary, if documented as such. Be sure to provide advisory information found in the Respirators rule to affected employees and ensure use doesn’t create new safety or health issues. Fit-testing is encouraged, but not required when respirators are worn solely for source control purposes. Medical evaluations are also not required when N95s are used as source control.

Medical and Disability Considerations

What are workers with medical and disability issues that may prevent the required use of a mask?

Employees with a medical or disability issue who are required to mask for work can request an accommodation from their employer by providing an accommodation statement from their medical professional specifying that a mask should not be worn due to their present health condition. However, employers cannot allow those employees to work wearing only a face shield instead of a mask; they must put in place accommodations or mitigations in addition to the face shield.

"The individual rights afforded by the ADA (Americans with Disability Act) must always be balanced with the health and safety of employees, other customers, and the public at large," according to the Northwest ADA Center.

Employers should assess any negative impacts that masks might have on employees with disabilities and make accommodations per the ADA. For example, workers communicating with people who are deaf or hard of hearing may need to temporarily unmask while staying at least 6 feet away or behind a physical barrier in order to allow for lip reading.

Can I wear a face shield instead of a cloth face covering?

No. A face shield is not a substitute for a mask. Face shields allow particles exhaled from the wearer to freely move around the edges of the shield and into the open air for others to breathe. Face shields may be worn along with masks to protect workers from others who sneeze or cough nearby or to protect from splashes when diluting or applying harmful liquids like bleach or cleaning chemicals.

Is a face shield with cloth covering the side and bottom edges an acceptable accommodation for workers who have a medical exemption to wearing a cloth face covering?

Yes. A face shield that includes a cloth extension attached along the entire edge of the shield is an acceptable accommodation.

Does wearing a mask create a build-up of carbon dioxide for the person wearing it?

No. That's a myth. You can find more information at the Department of Health (DOH) web page Myths and Facts about Cloth Face Coverings.

Vehicles and Deliveries

Do delivery drivers working for companies such as UPS and FedEx need to wear masks?

Delivery drivers, must wear a mask when they enter healthcare and long-term care facilities, correctional facilities, and possibly other locations per their employer’s COVID-19 hazard assessment.

No mask would be required while a driver is alone in their vehicle.

What about workers traveling together in a vehicle?

This depends on the employers COVID-19 hazard assessment. The hazard assessment needs to take into account the duration and frequency of rides with others, workers proximity to the driver and coworkers, their COVID-19 community transmission level, vaccination status of the driver and passengers, and provision of fresh air ventilation. Due to the enclosed nature of vehicle travel, respirator use for everyone is often the safest approach.

Working Alone

What does it mean to be "working alone"?

Someone is considered to be working alone when they're isolated from interaction with other people and have little or no expectation of in-person interruption. How often a worker is able to work alone throughout the day may vary.

Examples of working alone include:

  • A lone worker inside the enclosed cab of a crane, tractor, harvester, excavator, or other heavy equipment or vehicle.
  • A person by themselves in an office with 4 walls and a door.
  • A lone worker inside of a cubicle with 4 walls (one with an opening for an entryway) that are high enough to block the breathing zone of anyone walking by, and whose work activity will not require anyone to come inside of the cubicle.
  • A worker by themselves outside in an agricultural field, the woods, or other open area with no anticipated contact with others.

Do employees working alone in 6-foot-high cubicles need to wear a mask?

Typically, no. Employers may need to conduct a COVID-19 hazard assessment for other locations such as meeting rooms, etc., to determine whether masks are needed or not.