Strategic HR Wheel of HR highlighting Health, Safety & Security

Surgical Mask Use to Prevent Coronavirus


Should I require my employees to wear a surgical mask to protect themselves from the recent coronavirus outbreak?


The decision to require surgical masks in the workplace would depend upon an analysis of the work environment.  OSHA categorizes and defines employee risk of coronavirus exposure at work into four categories – very high, high, medium, and lower risk.  The level of risk depends on their potential exposure (typically repeated exposure) to those infected with the virus.  The designations are as follows:

  • Very high risk occupations are those with high exposure to known or suspected sources of the virus such as healthcare employees performing “aerosol-generating” procedures on known or suspected pandemic flu patients or laboratory employees handling specimens of known or suspected patients.
  • High exposure risk occupations are those with a high potential for exposure to known or suspected sources of the virus.  These include healthcare employees and support staff (outside of those defined as very high risk), morgue and mortuary employees,
  • Medium exposure risk occupations are those that have frequent, close contact (defined as 6 feel) with known or suspected sources.  This would include employees in schools as an example or high volume retail.
  • Lower exposure risk occupations are those that do not require contact with people known to be infected nor frequent, close contact with the public.  Office employees with limited contact with the general public or other coworkers would be in this category.

An analysis of the risk associated in the workplace is essential in determining appropriateness.  In many instances those in very high and high exposure occupations would be better protected through the use of a respirator, not a surgical mask.

For the other levels of occupations, education is key.  The most important thing to know is what surgical masks can and cannot do.  Surgical masks (those approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) are used as a physical barrier to protect employees from hazards, such as body fluids, by trapping the body fluid that may contain the virus when they are expelled.  The most important benefit for a mask is to prevent accidental contamination through the limitation of exposure to secretions and body fluids (blood, saliva, mucus, etc.)  Surgical masks are not made to prevent the inhalation of small airborne contaminants.  Surgical masks don’t seal tightly, which leaves gaps and thus loses any filtration it may provide to keep out airborne particles.

According to OSHA, there is very limited information on the value of surgical masks to prevent the spread of the virus when there is no known source of infection.  So the question remains, is the cost worth it?  The bottom line – educate your employees on good hygiene practices; these are truly your best defense in the workplace to reduce the spread of infection.  Frequent hand washing, proper sneezing, and cleaning/disinfecting of work surfaces will provide many of the necessary protections in the workplace.  Of course, if there is someone infected in the workplace keep in mind that surgical masks would be only one small step (with questionable value) in protection.  Isolation and social distancing is a more effective control strategy in the workplace and should be enforced to eliminate occupational exposure.