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

Last updated: Jan. 26, 2021

These common questions and answers are to help with implementation of Governor Jay Inslee's orders 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. The employer must immediately replace your mask if you request it, or if it becomes contaminated, wet, dirty, damaged, or when recommended by the manufacturer.

Does an employer have to inform employees about COVID-19 hazards and the possibility of it being in the workplace?  

Yes. If the employer is aware there is an above-normal risk of COVID-19 in their workplace, they need to inform employees of the heightened risk. A general statement will suffice.

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

No. There are no official guidelines regarding cloth weight for face masks used in low-risk settings.

Can cloth face coverings be laundered at home?

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

Are surgical masks or cloth face coverings acceptable respiratory protection in the construction industry when respirators are required but are not available due to the COVID-19 epidemic?

No. Employers must not allow the use of surgical masks or cloth face coverings when a respirator is required.

When respirators are required but not available, and hazards cannot otherwise be adequately controlled through engineering and/or administrative controls, then an employee cannot conduct this work.

Working With Customers and Clients

What are the minimum requirements for a business to comply with the customer mask order?

The business must post prominent customer mask policy signage at entrances, and they should be in the language of their main customer base (for example, English, Korean, English and Spanish, and so forth).

The business should take steps to engage customers to ensure face coverings are worn to protect workers and other customers, but avoid creating potentially violent situations.

  • Include customer masking policy and procedures in COVID-19 worker safety programs.
  • Designate a manager/supervisor to oversee the business's COVID-19 safety program at each facility.

Are employers required to post an employee at each entrance to check on customer masking?

No. However, each employer must decide if posting 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 have to wear a face covering or mask. The requirement for workers to wear face coverings or better is based on whether they're working alone.

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?

Barriers and ventilation should be set up in the call center to provide effective separation between workstations and supervisor locations. Dispatchers do not need to wear masks while sitting in separated workstations or communicating on emergency calls.

Coverings/masks must be used when with other people, in accordance to the L&I guidance chart.

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 not working alone. When interacting with the public, masks should be worn, but other public safety concerns may necessitate removing the mask for improved communication or to avoid the mask being a hazard. An individual alone in a car is permitted to not wear a facial covering. Two officers in a car is likely medium risk and a covering must be worn; other situations may need to be evaluated. Masks or face coverings are required when law enforcement officers are in a station house or other administrative building with frequent in-person interactions.

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. 

Heat Stress and Face Coverings

Can wearing a mask while I am working and it is hot out cause me to overheat?

No, a face covering alone will not cause a person to overheat. Studies have shown that filtering facepieces such as an N95 respirator do not cause additional physiological stress to most wearers and do not contribute to heat stress. Cloth face coverings and procedural masks are typically not as restrictive as wearing an N95 mask, and so are of even less concern regarding overheating of the wearer.

When can a face shield substitute for coverings/masks for outside heat-exposed workers?

While working alone.

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

Yes, while working alone and during cool-down breaks, as long as appropriate distance from other people is maintained.

At what temperature above 80 degrees is it appropriate to remove facial coverings and masks when exposed to the hazard of heat stress?

It is not appropriate to remove facial coverings based on the temperature. Removing facial coverings is not an effective way of reducing body temperature. Regular protective measures to control heat stress must be implemented, such as drinking plenty of water, frequent breaks in a cool area, and scheduling work during cooler parts of the day.

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

Cloth face coverings are the minimum that is required for low-transmission-risk work. If the worker prefers to use disposable medical masks, that is acceptable.


Will an N95 respirator protect the wearer from the virus that causes COVID-19?

Yes. “N95” refers to a class of respirator filters that remove at least 95% of very small (0.3 microns) particles from the air. An N95 respirator is a specific type of tight-fitting mask over the mouth and nose that is made out of special filter material.

It has been mistakenly claimed that since the virus is approximately 0.1 microns in size, wearing an N95 respirator will not protect the wearer. When an infected person expels the virus into the air through activities like talking, coughing, or sneezing, the airborne particles are composed of more than just the virus. These larger particles 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, N95 respirators with exhalation valves are still designed to remove at least 95% of very small (0.3 microns) particles from air breathed in by the wearer.

An exhalation valve is a small, flat device embedded into the N95 respirator that closes to force air the wearer inhales to go through the respirator filter material, but opens when the wearer exhales. Although exhaled breath is not filtered, the respirator does not allow a straight path for exhaled breath and significantly reduces the release of respiratory droplets.

But because the exhalation valve can be penetrated by splashed liquids, N95 respirators with exhalation valves may not be used in settings where there is risk of splashes of blood or other body fluids.

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?

N95 respirators with exhalation valves are not designed to filter the air that wearers breathe out. If the wearers have COVID-19, they could exhale unfiltered, virus-containing air through the exhalation valve and transmit 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.

Is it OK to use N95 respirators without modifying the exhalation valve?

Because the modifications increase the protection to people around the wearer, they are preferred over using N95 respirators with unmodified exhalation valves. But even without such modifications, N95 respirators with exhalation valves can still protect others around the wearer as well as or better than surgical masks or non-respirator face coverings such as cloth masks.

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.

Are respirators − whether N95 or another type − required for high and extremely high risk transmission situations?

Yes. Please refer to L&I publication Which Mask for Which Task? (F414-168-000) 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 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, including camera operators, production staff, and courtroom staff, must wear masks or face coverings while not working alone.

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.

Are face shields an acceptable substitute for masks or cloth face coverings?

No. Face shields provide good droplet protection for the wearer, but the purpose of using a cloth face covering or mask is to protect others. Because people can be infected and actively transmitting the virus without knowing it, coverings stop the virus at the source — the mouth and nose — from getting into the air. It prevents workers from passing the virus to other workers and customers.

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 mask or cloth face covering?

Yes. A face shield that includes a cloth extension attached to 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 must wear masks when they may come within 6 feet of another person. No mask is required while a delivery driver is in their vehicle alone.

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

Under Gov. Jay Inslee's Safe Start directive, at a minimum all workers are required to wear a cloth facial covering unless they are working alone or are exempt because of medical reasons. Vendors entering a store to deliver supplies or stock shelves must wear a face mask while interacting with others in the store, unless they are working completely alone.

Can workers traveling together in a vehicle be closer than 6 feet apart?

Workers traveling together in a vehicle should maintain 6 feet of social distance; however, transporting multiple workers in vehicles for up to 1 hour per trip would be a considered a medium-transmission risk when all of the following conditions are met:

  • Workers must be 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 must be 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 must be 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.

Workers in the medium-risk category must wear non-cloth disposables, which include dust masks; KN95 or other non-approved, foreign system, NIOSH-style filtering face-piece respirators; or non-FDA-approved procedure masks.

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 or other heavy equipment, vehicle, or harvester.
  • A person by themselves inside 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, they are considered to be "working alone." With that, they do not have to wear a cloth face covering or better while in their cubicle. When workers leave their cubicles, they need to put the face covering on.

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.


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