Should You Make Employees Wear a Face Mask?

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HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Friday, September 25, 2020

Whether you've already begun welcoming people back to the workplace or you're planning to re-open soon, you need to be able to keep your workers, customers, and visitors as safe as possible at all times. As a result, organizations have been encouraged to put social distancing and other safety measures in place - but should this include wearing a mask at work?

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Should You Make Employees Wear a Face Mask?

There have now been over 27 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and this has had a serious impact on people and organizations across the globe. Schools, businesses even whole nations have been forced to close their doors to stop the spread. 

During all this, organizations have been encouraged to allow employees to work from home. But after months of uncertainty, it’s understandable that people are keen to try and get back to some sort of normal, with many businesses re-opening and looking for ways to operate safely on a day-to-day basis.

Masks have been cited as one of the key players in combatting the virus, with researchers revealing they can reduce the wearer’s risk of catching COVID-19 by as much as 65%. Despite this, there still seems to be quite a lot of confusion around the issue and whether masks should be worn.

This guide outlines the pros and cons of wearing masks at work, whether you can enforce this rule in your organization and whether it’s the right decision for your business.

Can you ask your employees to wear a mask?

The simple answer is yes. If you have reason to be concerned about the health and safety of your staff, customers, or anyone else who may be visiting your place of work, you have the right to require that employees wear a mask.

This has been defined by experts and legal representatives as ‘business necessity’ and allows employers to mandate face coverings in the workplace. That said, there are some exceptions to the rule. For example, those with illness or disabilities that prevent them from being able to wear a mask can be exempt.

The rights of employees

Employees that suffer from health issues such as asthma or allergies, or a disability that means they can’t wear a face covering, have the right to request reasonable accommodation (such as a face shield). If they can’t wear a mask, they must also be assigned to work in areas that don’t require a mask or are socially distanced. If possible, they should work from home, but this will depend on the industry you work in.

When putting in an accommodation request, employees can do this themselves or they can have a representative do it for them. Once they’ve put in a request, the employer may ask for more details and seek medical documentation to support their claims. If required, they must then be given fair and reasonable accommodations.

When masks may be required and when they can be a good idea

Industries that are predominantly customer-facing are at higher risk, with people coming and going throughout the day. As such, face coverings are required in sectors such as retail, hospitality, catering, and tourism. In fact, experts at the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that anyone in the public space should wear a face-covering whether working, traveling, shopping, or visiting.

It is also a good idea to encourage the wearing of face masks in places were two-meter social distancing is not possible. For example, if you have a smaller office space and there isn't enough room to separate the workforce.

When masks may be a bad idea 

While face masks can’t always be worn due to disabilities or medical conditions, there are also other circumstances in which asking employees to wear a mask might not be the best idea:

  • For people who work in a setting where wearing a mask could increase the chances of a heat-related illness or incident
  • When working outdoors employees may not need to wear masks as long as social distancing is possible, for example, in the construction industry
  • Masks are not a suitable substitute for protective gear such as respiratory masks in hazardous environments and should therefore not be used instead
  • If the mask could create further safety issues such as straps getting trapped in machinery. This could affect those in manufacturing environments
  • If wearing a mask will cause undue fear or concern to customers or visitors

Deciding whether or not you should make your employees wear a mask

With all of the above in mind, you need to decide whether you should make employees wear a face mask in your organization. If you're not bound by law or government guidelines, you need to weigh up the pros and cons. This will largely depend on the industry you work in and whether you're concerned about the wellbeing of your employees as a result of their interaction with others.

In order to help you decide, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are your employees working indoors or outdoors?
  • Can your employees keep two-meters apart?
  • Are your employees working closely together or with the general public?
  • Will wearing face masks cause additional health and safety problems?

What to do if an employee won’t wear a mask

Legal experts have advised that disciplinary action can be taken against employees who refuse to wear a mask with no legitimate reason as to why. After all, workers are expected to follow all reasonable workplace policies, particularly when it comes to face masks which have been recommended for use by the CDC.

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