To keep employees safe and to help curb the spread of COVID-19, many businesses deemed non-essential have temporarily had to close or move their workforce to a remote situation.

As the economy begins to re-open, these businesses and organizations are now preparing to welcome employees and clients back. One of many government-recommended protocols during this period is the wearing of face coverings in public, including places of employment.

What is the difference between a face covering and a mask?

Face coverings are made from cloth and can be purchased or made at home. Medical professionals agree that these types of non-medical grade coverings can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Masks refer to filtering respirators, such as an N95, K95, medical-grade, or surgical masks. These are currently being utilized by vital health professionals and are in short supply.

Should my employees use face coverings, or should they wear masks?

Consider what type of service or product you provide. Masks are critical supplies and must be reserved for health care workers and other medical responders. Unless you are delivering essential services in a health care field, consider using cloth face coverings rather than masks. Always check updated guidelines from the Public Health Agency of Canada and your local government.

Face coverings in the workplace

People with minimal or no symptoms can still carry COVID-19. While face coverings don’t replace social distancing, they can help prevent transmission.

The Public Health Agency of Canada currently recommends wearing face coverings in public, and lists guidelines for effective cloth face coverings, which include the following characteristics:

  • A tight but comfortable fit on the face, allowing for unrestricted breathing
  • Secured with ties or ear loops
  • Multiple layers of durable fabric, able to withstand washing

As an employer, ensure you have specific policies and practices in place for the use of face coverings, including:

  • Who should wear them
  • How they will be supplied
  • Instruction on the correct usage of face coverings

It’s also essential to have a plan in place for different employee concerns, such as:

  • Objections
  • Lost face coverings
  • Medical conditions that prevent an employee from wearing a face-covering
  • Preference of an alternative face covering

Communicate all policies regarding face coverings to employees, including whether they are optional or mandatory, how they will be provided, and how to wash and maintain them.

Check local legislation

When implementing face coverings in the workplace, check local guidelines and legislation, and seek legal counsel when implementing any new policies or changes.

In some provinces, businesses are currently required to supply face coverings to employees, while others offer some flexibility. If you are seeking face coverings but find it challenging to secure them, they can often be made in-house or purchased. If you request that employees provide their own covers,  you may be required to reimburse them for time, materials, and costs, depending on your location.

For any business that employs health care workers and other medical professionals, masks such as the N95 may be appropriate. Ensure you have the necessary supply and specific policies on how to use them, including expectations for:

  • Who is to wear masks
  • Correct usage
  • The number of masks used per shift
  • Mask disposal
  • Reusing masks, if applicable

Protecting your employees

To ensure the best use of face coverings and masks in the workplace, consider a training program that includes the following guidelines:

  • Before entering the workplace, ensure your mask or cloth face covering is snug and secure with ties or ear loops; make sure you can breathe comfortably and without restriction
  • Wearing a mask or cloth face-covering does not replace frequent hand washing and social distancing
  • When removing the mask or face covering, avoid touching your face, nose, and mouth, and wash your hands as soon as the covering has been removed
  • Wash face coverings made of cloth between uses

By being proactive and establishing appropriate measures and practices, employers can protect their most valuable resource—their employees—and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as our economy re-opens.