Employers have had to scramble to comply with several new federal, state, and local health directives intended to help combat the spread of COVID-19. In Washington and Oregon, employers must implement and enforce a variety of new rules such as enforcing six-foot physical distance between employees or customers when feasible, reducing building capacity, and ensuring adequate employee handwashing. Quite possibly, the trickiest directive to enforce though has been face-covering requirements. Washington, Oregon, and some counties in Idaho require mask wearing in public and at the workplace. Temperatures and humidity are rising, and with current state and local mask requirements in place, employees are starting to feel the heat.
Common employee complaints about face coverings include restricted breathing, glasses fogging, maskne or rashing, concerns that face-coverings are not an effective virus control method, or that they cause the wearer to overheat. With summer temperatures rising, mask wearing could become a safety concern if not adequately addressed.
Why Wear a Face Covering
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and is spread person to person by respiratory droplets. Numerous studies show that face coverings help prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by reducing the respiratory droplets spread by the wearer, and therefore are an effective means to reduce the spread of COVID-19. An experiment published in the New England Journal of Medicine used high-speed video and found that a person speaking a simple phrase generated hundreds of droplets ranging from 20 to 500 micrometers. Nearly all droplets were blocked when the subject wore a face covering.
Choosing the Right Mask
When temperatures and humidity rise, wearing a face covering can become uncomfortable, and if wearing the wrong type of covering, the covering can contribute to an employee overheating. Experts advise that choosing the right kind of face covering for the job task is critical. Employers should conduct a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) for COVID-19 work hazards as part of their COVID-19 response plan if they have not already done so. The JHA will help determine how at-risk employees are to being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Most employers not in health care or social services will find that that they are at a lower risk of exposure and will not need a tight-fitting N95 mask or respirator. Instead, employees in low and medium risk jobs should be wearing a breathable mask made up of cotton, cloth, or paper, which will help keep employees cooler. Washington State has published a helpful resource, Which Mask for the Task, to help select the best face covering based on the work task.
When selecting face coverings, look for coverings that can be tied around the head or have earloops and cover both the mouth and nose. Reusable, adjustable face coverings offer a better fit for the wearer, and cotton is not only washable and lighter than most materials, but it is also more breathable and causes less skin irritation if a person is sweating. Lighter colored face coverings absorb less heat from the sun and stay cooler compared to darker colored face coverings. Employees should have a few face coverings with them each day, allowing them to change out the covering when it becomes damp or wet from sweat. When swapping a covering, the employee should be more than six feet away from others, should throw disposable coverings away, or store reusable coverings in a Ziploc bag or other container until they can be washed. Employees should wash or sanitize their hands before putting a new face covering on.
Prevention and Response to Overheating
Employees should be made aware of signs of overheating in themselves and coworkers, such as shortness of breath, weakness, thirst, and dizziness. If any of these signs appear, the sufferer should get to a cooler space, maintain at least a six-foot distance from others, remove their face covering, and drink some water. Employers should encourage employees who work in warm environments to take regular breaks and to stay hydrated. The body cools itself by sweating, so to sweat, you must be hydrated. Additionally, offering water and electrolyte low-sugar drinks or even popsicles, can help cool overheated workers and keep them hydrated.
Employers may consider spacing group or team work out during the day to allow employees intermittent time working alone where they don’t need to wear a face-covering to help prevent overheating. Also, employers should evaluate work tasks. Employers may choose to move more strenuous work to cooler hours of the day or days of the week based on weather forecasts, if possible, to accommodate workers who must wear face coverings all times. Washington defines “working alone” as someone isolated from interaction with other people and has little or no expectation of in-person interruption. How often a worker can work alone throughout the day may vary.
Addressing Employee Complaints and Refusals to Wear a Mask
Healthy persons shouldn’t have significant health impacts from wearing a face covering in the heat. Still, those with underlying health conditions such as lung disease or asthma could be impacted by the extra work of breathing when wearing a mask in the heat or doing strenuous work. An exception to mask mandates applies if an employee is working alone (see definition of “working alone” above), and/or they have a medical condition that prevents them from safely wearing a mask.
Employers must also be mindful of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) interactive process when an employee properly raises a need for accommodation, whether due to hotter weather and mask wearing and/or due to an underlying health condition. The employer can request proof that the employee’s medical restrictions make wearing a mask unsafe or unhealthy. However, it is important to note that in order to comply with health and safety requirements, the accommodation may not simply be allowing the employee not to wear a mask in the workplace. Employers must engage in the interactive discussion to determine if a reasonable accommodation is available to allow the employee to work in the workplace safely.
While what type of accommodation is reasonable and effective must be considered on a case by case basis, state guidance is clear that social distancing without a mask is not enough. An employee may suggest wearing a plastic clear face shield instead of a cloth mask; however, the CDC does not recommend wearing face shields alone (without a face mask over the mouth) to protect against COVID-19. Washington L&I states explicitly that a face shield is not an appropriate face covering under its mask requirement. Modification of job location to allow a worker to work alone, isolated from interaction with co-workers, and little or no expectation of in-person interruption could be an accommodation if it allows an employee to perform all job functions successfully. Other accommodations may include working from home or a leave of absence.
Eligible Archbright members can contact the HR Hotline to request our updated ADA Interactive Process tool for COVID-19. Eligible members can also contact the HR Hotline or Safety Hotline for additional guidance on face coverings, and how to address safety issues around overheating in the workplace or an employee’s request not to wear a mask. Another great member resource is the COVID-19 Resources page.
For employers interested in ensuring their workplace is compliant with all COVID-19 safety requirements, Archbright offers a COVID-19 Digital Inspection & Safety Roadmap. This unique service provides support to ensure your workplace is compliant with COVID-19 safety requirements and includes a detailed recommendations and findings report for your workplace, addressing regulations, best practices, and next steps.
For more information, contact your Account Executive or email us today.
Tiffany Knudsen, Content Manager
Kellis Borek, Vice President, Labor & Legal Services General Counsel