What Workers Should Know About Voluntary Use of Masks

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The virus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, sometimes without symptoms (asymptomatically), among workers – especially in communities with substantial or high transmission levels.

If you aren’t already required to wear a mask at work, but are thinking about voluntarily wearing one, the following can help you understand your options.

On this page the term “mask” is used broadly to include N95s and other respirators shown here, KN95s, medical procedure masks, surgical masks, and cloth face coverings. Any mask is better than no mask; however, respirators approved by NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health) can offer you the highest level protection from getting COVID-19.

Some Basics

Can anyone choose to mask up at work?

Yes. Whether you are immunocompromised, unvaccinated (or not up-to-date), live with someone who is immunocompromised or unvaccinated (or not up-to-date), or want to avoid getting sick with COVID-19 for any other medical or personal reason - you have a legal right, per WAC 296-62-601, to voluntarily wear a respirator or other mask at work:

  • For the duration of Washington State’s COVID-19 public health emergency;
  • When you are not required to wear a mask by L&I, your employer, or public health department; and
  • As long as use won’t create a safety, security, or regulatory issue at work.

The same goes for other types of protective equipment like face shields, gloves, and gowns.

Does it matter if I’m fully vaccinated?

No. Any worker, even those up-to-date on boosters, may choose to voluntarily mask up to reduce their risk for getting COVID-19 from work.

What must my employer do if I want to voluntarily wear a mask?

Your employer would be required to:

  • Allow you to wear a mask as long as use doesn’t create a safety hazard at work and doesn’t conflict with other applicable L&I or public health department standards for protective equipment; and
  • Provide you a free copy of Table 2 from the Respirator rule, Chapter 296-842 WAC, if you decide to wear a respirator.

Who provides masks?

Employers are not required to provide masks for voluntary use. If your employer doesn’t provide masks or the type of mask you want to use, you may need to provide it yourself. When mask use is required (i.e., not voluntary), employers must provide masks that meet the minimum requirement.

Am I required to get medical clearance to wear a mask?

Medical clearance is only relevant to respirators (not other types of masks) and is not required when respirators are voluntarily used for COVID-19 prevention.

The likelihood for negative health impacts due to wearing a respirator varies based on the type of respirator and the user’s health issues. For example, an N95 or powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) is less likely than an elastomeric (i.e., with a rubber-like face piece) respirator to cause breathing issues. If you want to use an elastomeric respirator, you may want to consider the health conditions in Part 2 of WAC 296-842-22005.

Your employer isn’t required to provide or pay for medical clearance related to COVID-19 voluntary respirator use, but might offer anyway. Alternatively, you may choose to fill out the medical questionnaire (see WAC 296-842-22005) and provide a copy yourself to an occupational health provider for their review and opinion.

What about fit testing?

A fit test must be provided and paid for by your employer only when you are required to use a tight-fitting respirator (i.e. tight-fitting means a respirator that relies on a tight face seal to work, like an N95); a fit test is not required for respirators used voluntarily or other types of masks like medical procedure masks.

A fit test, when performed correctly to challenge your respirator’s sealing capability, can help you know whether your respirator provides a good seal to your face; however, it may not be feasible for most voluntary users since it takes special supplies, procedures, knowledge, and skills to carry out. Employers have no obligation to provide or pay for fit-testing respirators used voluntarily.

If you want to pursue a fit test, check with your employer to see if they might make one available. Or, check online to find a fit-testing service that might offer fit testing on an individual basis.

To avoid face-seal issues altogether, consider a loose-fitting PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator).

And seal checks?

A seal check is a must each time you put on your tight-fitting respirator and takes little time and effort once you know what to do. A seal check isn’t as exact as a fit test, but it can help you detect a poor fit. If your respirator fails to inflate and collapse during a seal check, you may need to try a different size or model.

Always follow the manufacturer instructions for seal checking your respirator. To see what a seal check looks like, watch this video or review this handout.

What if my employer prohibits me from wearing a mask at work?

You can call DOSH at 1-800-423-7233 to report a safety right violation or go online to fill out a DOSH Complaint Form available at https://www.Lni.wa.gov/SafetyComplaints.

You may remain anonymous when reporting or request confidentiality if you provide your contact information.

Choosing Your Mask

Why use a respirator instead of some other mask?

Compared to other masks, NIOSH-approved respirators are the best choice for preventing COVID-19. When worn properly, they provide a more complete seal around your mouth and nose than other masks.

In addition to better seal quality, filter efficiency is important. Respirators must meet efficiency filtration standards set by NIOSH; so if you choose a NIOSH-approved respirator, you can trust its filter efficiency has been verified.

How do I tell if a respirator is NIOSH-approved?

Check the respirator and packaging for a testing and certification (TC) number, for example, TC 84A-111.

If you are concerned about the authenticity of the approval number, go online to the NIOSH Certified Equipment List and enter the TC number. If you don’t see a result, then assume it’s not approved.

Are KN95s as good as N95s?

KN95s are less protective than an N95s - based on results from filter and fit testing studies. Evidence shows that filters on most KN95s do not perform to NIOSH standards; for example, in 2020 and 2021, about 60% of the KN95 models NIOSH tested did not meet NIOSH’s 95% minimum efficiency and many were well below that minimum.

In addition, most KN95s with ear loops fail fit testing; this generally indicates a less protective sealing capability against infectious particles.

What types of respirators are recommended?

For best results, select a respirator that is NIOSH-approved for filtering out particles. Any of the following are protective from COVID-19:

  • A filtering facepiece respirator such as an N95 or P100 (but not a KN95)
  • An elastomeric (rubber-like) half- or full-facepiece respirator with HEPA or other particulate filters
  • A powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) with HEPA filters

You can see pictures of these air-purifying respirators here.

What type of respirator is the most protective?

Compared to filtering-facepiece and elastomeric models, loose-fitting PAPRs offer the most protection and are easier to breathe with.

In addition, a loose-fitting PAPR might be a good option if you have a beard or other facial hair since they don’t rely on a face seal to work. They can also provide a cooling effect as they gently blow filtered air across the face.

PAPRs cost more than other NIOSH-approved respirators and require more maintenance, but the protective and comfort benefits may far outweigh the costs.

What other differences should I consider when selecting a respirator?

A respirator with HEPA or P100 filters can remove more particles from the air than an N95, but may be harder to breathe through.

Elastomeric respirators cost more than filtering facepiece respirators and require some maintenance practices such as cleaning, storage, and parts replacement; but they last a long time and the facepieces can be washed and disinfected between uses. Some models are available without an exhalation valve - which may be important if you work in health care. Full-facepiece styles provide eye protection and greater overall protection than half-facepiece models due to the seal characteristics.

Beards, pronounced stubble, and other facial hair in the sealing area of a filtering-facepiece or elastomeric respirator will compromise its protective fit so take steps (e.g., shaving the area) to avoid that from happening.

Do masks contain latex?

Yes. Some masks contain latex. For example, some straps are made of latex so check the manufacturer information before purchase or use.

Getting the Most Out of Your Mask

How long do filters last?

Check use and care information from the mask manufacturer.

Generally, N95s and filters on elastomeric respirators and PAPRs should be replaced if the filter material:

  • Gets harder to breathe through
  • Becomes visibly dirty or physically damaged.

Do not attempt to extend the use of filters by washing or sterilizing them. This can degrade the filter material and create a health risk for the wearer.

What else should I know when using a mask?

Your mask should fit comfortably around the contours of your face without pressure points. Look for models with adjustable straps that go around the head and neck to get the best fit. If possible, try on a few models and/or sizes to find the most comfortable mask you can. Straps should hold the facepiece firmly in place but not cause it to dig into your skin or put too much pressure on any part of your face. If you notice any discomfort, choose a different size or model.

Always follow manufacturer directions on how to put on, wear, remove, and maintain or dispose of your mask.

Some people may get a rash or experience other skin problems when wearing a mask regularly.

If you use an elastomeric respirator or PAPR and a part gets worn out or damaged, use only replacement parts made specifically for that respirator model by its manufacturer.

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