Coronavirus (COVID-19) Common Questions Regarding Worker Face Covering and Mask Requirements

Last updated: Sept. 27, 2021

These common questions and answers are to help with implementation of Governor Jay Inslee's proclamation, the Washington State Department of Health's order, and L&I regulatory policy related to COVID-19 and the use of face coverings, masks 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 employer requirements for providing masks?

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

Does an employer have to inform employees about COVID-19 hazards in the workplace?

Yes. Employers need to inform employees, in a language they understand best, about COVID-19 hazards, symptoms, and prevention measures at work. The employer can use handouts, online videos, webinars, and/or other means appropriate for their employees.

Are there guidelines about cloth weight for face coverings used in low- or negligible-risk settings?

Cloth face coverings must include at least one layer of tightly woven fabric without visible holes. Multiple layers of fabric are strongly recommended.

Can cloth face coverings be laundered at home?

Yes, cloth face coverings can and should be routinely laundered at home.

Working With Customers and Clients

What does a business need to do to comply with the customer mask order?

The business must post signs in a prominent location visible to customers at entrances, informing that masks are required for entry. Signs should be in the language of their main customer base (for example, English, Korean, English and Spanish, and so forth).

The business 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 address how customers and visitors without masks will be accommodated (for example, use of delivery, curbside (outside) service)
  • Have a supervisory or management person(s) available to address issues, when necessary.

Are employers 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 increase the effectiveness of their COVID-19 customer masking program.

Are public transportation businesses expected to enforce the customer mask order?

Yes. Public transportation providers are expected to display signs that inform riders they need to wear a face covering or mask. When riders do not wear face coverings or masks, the operator should inform the rider of the mask policy and ask that they comply. The transit business may have specific steps for operators to take, but operators should avoid actions potentially creating violent situations.

Do workers have to wear cloth face coverings when interacting with clients while they're behind a Plexiglas barrier and are safe-distanced?

Yes. While the use of barriers is encouraged, it does not remove the requirement that workers wear a face covering or mask.

First Responders

Do fire, police, 911 dispatchers, and the like need to wear a cloth face covering while working at the desk during emergency calls?

Dispatchers and other employees working at desks in call center spaces accessible to the public must wear a cloth face covering. If desks are located in a space not accessible to the public, then the cloth face covering requirement would apply to only employees not verified as fully vaccinated (although the employer can still require mask use for fully vaccinated workers). Any employee not required to wear a mask may, by law, choose to voluntarily wear one.

Barriers and ventilation should be set up in the call center to provide effective separation between workstations and supervisor locations. Use of such barriers doesn't replace use of cloth face coverings or other masks.

What about police? Should they wear (or not wear) cloth face coverings in a car alone, on the beat, and other situations

As a general rule, cloth face coverings should be worn when working indoors in public-facing areas (for example, a station house or other administrative building), or if unvaccinated, working in non-public areas, but other public safety concerns may necessitate removing the mask for improved communication or to avoid the mask being a hazard. The same general rule goes for officers working at an outdoor event with more than 500 attendees.

An individual alone in a car or outdoors on the beat is permitted to not wear a cloth face covering. Two officers in a car increases risk for transmission and the employer will need to do an exposure assessment to determine masking is necessary

Do firefighters have to wear masks while sleeping at the station

No. Beds need to be 6 feet from each other, and if only bunk beds are used, the bottom bunk should be occupied and the top bunk left empty

Heat Stress and Face Coverings

Are cloth face coverings required when working outdoors?

When outdoors, vaccinated and unvaccinated workers are required to wear a cloth face covering at events or gatherings attended by 500 or more people. Cloth face coverings are recommended for all other crowded outdoor settings with less than 500 people when it's not feasible to physically distance.

Can wearing a mask while I'm working in hot weather cause me to overheat?

No, a face covering alone will not cause a person to overheat. Studies have shown that filtering facepiece respirators such as an N95 do not cause additional physiological stress to most wearers and do not contribute to heat stress.

Cloth face coverings and disposable medical masks are typically not as restrictive as wearing an N95 mask, and so are of even less concern regarding overheating of the wearer.

Can workers lower their mask below the chin occasionally throughout the day while working, and what steps should workers take to stay safe?

When masks are required, workers can occasionally lower their mask during cool-down breaks, as long as appropriate distance from other people is maintained.

Disposable medical masks seem to be better tolerated for outside workers in heat. Are these better than cloth masks during heat?

Disposable medical masks are generally more protective than a cloth face covering and therefore would be an acceptable alternative should the worker prefer to use one.

Respirators

Will 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.

The N95 respirator will protect the wearer from coronavirus exposure; the claim that since the "naked" virus is approximately 0.1 microns in size, wearing an N95 respirator will not protect the wearer is not correct. When an infected person expels the virus into the air through activities like talking, coughing, or sneezing, the airborne virus is not "naked"; they are coated in saliva/mucous and clump together resulting in much larger sized particles (droplets) that are easily trapped and filtered out by N95 respirators.

Some N95 respirators come with exhalation valves, while others do not. See a photo of an N95 respirator.

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

Yes, because the filter portion of the N95 respirators is what protects the wearer from inhaling particles. The exhalation valve 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 N95 respirators with exhalation valves may not be used in settings where there is risk for splashes of blood or other body fluids. Filtering facepiece and elastomeric respirator without exhalation valves are available to use in such scenarios.

When considering the use of an N95 respirator with exhalation valve in the workplace, also evaluate the risk of 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.

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.

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 exterior of the respirator, as described in the NIOSH document. These modifications should be evaluated to conform to 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?

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.

Are respirators — whether N95 or another type — required for high risk transmission situations?

Yes. Please refer to L&I publication Which Mask for Which Task? (F414-168-000) and DOSH Directive 11.80 for additional details. Inpatient hospitals should also refer to Washington State Department of Health Publication 820-117 (Interim Supplemental Guidance for Prioritization of N95 and Other Respirators in Inpatient Hospitals During Times of Supply Shortage).

Temporarily Removing a Mask

What COVID-19 protections are required for a speaker at a news conference, and witnesses in court trials?

Reporters, on-camera anchors/talent, speakers on camera, and witnesses at court trials may remove their cloth face covering (or other mask) for the time they are speaking only. A shared podium, witness stand, or equipment should not be touched without being sanitized after each person has used it. All people involved must maintain at least 6 feet of physical distancing from each other. All other workers in the area, including camera operators, production staff, and courtroom staff, must wear a cloth face coverings (or other mask).

Can cloth face coverings or masks be removed during lunch?

Yes, but social distancing needs to be maintained.

Medical and Disability Considerations

What are the requirements for workers with medical and disability issues that prevent the use of a cloth face covering or mask?

Employees with a medical or disability issue, who are requesting accommodation, must provide their employer with an accommodation statement from their medical professional specifying that a face covering or mask should not be worn due to their present health condition. Employers cannot allow 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 face coverings 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 cloth face covering. 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 cloth face coverings 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, regardless of their vaccination status, must wear a cloth face covering when they enter stores, restaurants, and other public indoor spaces. They must also use a cloth face covering, at a minimum, and practice physical distancing if they are not verified as fully vaccinated and work indoors around others in warehouses and other non-public spaces.

Drivers verified as fully vaccinated can choose to not wear a cloth face covering in non-public indoor spaces as long as their employer doesn't require it.

Mask use outdoors isn't required — except at events with 500 or more attendees or in settings where the employer decides to require masks. No mask is required while a driver is in their vehicle alone.

Do vendors delivering goods to a store need to wear a mask?

The previous answer provided for delivery drivers applies to vendors (when entering a store to deliver supplies or stock).

What about workers traveling together in a vehicle?

Protective masks may not be necessary for drivers and passengers verified as fully vaccinated and riding in a well-ventilated vehicle to a jobsite just a couple of hours away; but a cloth face covering, disposable medical mask, or respirator may be required for unvaccinated workers in this situation, depending on the risk for transmission associated with their exposure situation. Due to the enclosed nature of vehicle travel, respirator use for everyone is the safest approach.

Risk for transmission increases for everyone when all of the following conditions are not met:

  • Workers are seated with at least 3 feet of separation in all directions. This is measured between breathing zones, the space within about 12 inches of their mouths and noses. For example, it is OK for a worker's feet to extend under the seat of another worker as long as they are not breathing the same air.
  • Ventilation is operated at full force (drawing in outside air) or all windows that can be opened should be fully open to provide as much fresh air as possible.
  • Vehicles are cleaned between trips, focusing on high-touch surfaces around seating positions.
  • No more than 2 workers (including the driver) are allowed in a compact car. Up to 4 workers (including the driver) are allowed in larger sedans and work trucks with 2 rows of seats.
  • Up to 6-7 workers are allowed in passenger vans if the minimum 3-foot distancing in all directions can be accomplished. It is possible that the design of the vehicle or its seating systems may not allow passenger vans to carry this many people.

Using a vehicle for higher occupancy or longer trips will be considered a high-transmission risk, and workers are required to wear respiratory protection. Businesses must comply with Washington Administrative Code 296-842 Respiratory Protection, which includes medical surveillance, fit testing, training, and a written program.

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 workers working alone in 6-foot-high cubicles need to wear cloth face coverings?

If the cubicle has 4 walls and a door opening, and the worker can maintain social distancing from others, they are considered to be "working alone." With that, they do not have to wear a cloth face covering or other mask while in their cubicle. When they leave their cubicle to use the restroom or exit the building, they need to put a mask on since they may encounter co-workers or the public.

Is a barista working at a drive-through coffee stand considered working alone?

If a drive-through worker is the only person in the stand, they only have to wear a cloth face covering or better while they are interacting with customers. Employers should consider use of barriers to limit the need for employees to lean over to serve the customer.

Questions?

If you have further questions regarding workplace safety, call 1-800-4 BE SAFE (1-800-423-7233).