When Masks are Used Voluntarily – Employer Responsibilities

Background

Employers are required by the emergency rule, Voluntary Use of Personal Protective Equipment (WAC 296-62-607) to permit employees and contractors to voluntarily use respirators and other masks during the current COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the emergency rule, when respirators are voluntarily used, employers must also follow the voluntary use requirements in the Respirators rule, Chapter 296-842 WAC.

On this page the term “mask” is used broadly to include N95s and other styles of respirators, KN95s, medical procedure masks, surgical masks, and cloth face coverings.

Describe “voluntary use”

Voluntary use of personal protective equipment (PPE) refers to the optional use of a mask or other PPE by an employee or contractor in the workplace when it’s not required by a regulation or the employer. For example, an employee who isn’t required to wear a mask for COVID-19 prevention or any other hazard, decides they want to wear one anyway.

During the current COVID-19 public health emergency, voluntary use can also occur when a COVID-19 hazard exists and an employee or contractor is required by L&I or the employer to use a certain type of PPE, but the employee or contractor wants to use something more protective. For example, an employee is required to use a medical procedure mask, but decides they want to upgrade to an N95 respirator.

How do voluntary use rules differ?

The emergency rule for voluntary use is in effect during any declared public health emergency, including Washington State’s current COVID-19 public health emergency. It applies to masks and other types of PPE (e.g., gloves, gowns, faceshields).

Voluntary use requirements in the Respirators rule were established before the current public health emergency and will remain effective during and after it. The rule applies only to respirators, not to other types of masks or PPE.

Can any employee choose to mask up?

Yes. Any employee or contractor can, for any private reason, choose to mask up. This includes those who are up-to-date with vaccinations as well as part time, seasonal, and temporary workers.

Am I required to pay for masks when voluntarily used?

No. You are only required to pay for required PPE. For example, if an employee is required to wear a medical procedure mask but wants to upgrade to a more protective N95, you would only need to pay for the medical procedure mask, not the N95.

What must I do if an employee wants to voluntarily wear a mask?

You would be required to:

  • Ensure voluntary use doesn’t create a safety or health hazard.
  • Provide the employee a free copy of the advisory information in Table 2 (available in multiple languages) from the Respirator rule.

As a best practice, employee should also read, What Employee Should Know About Voluntary Use of Masks (available in multiple languages).

How do masks create a safety or health hazard?

Voluntary use of disposable masks such as an N95 can create skin irritation or rash if they aren’t thrown away when they become dirty.

Elastomeric half-facepiece respirators with filter cartridges or hooded PAPRs may also present a skin hazard when they aren’t kept clean and, if not stored away from hazardous substances, can present an ingestion hazard due to handling the contaminated mask and subsequently eating, drinking, or smoking.

Elastomeric full-facepiece respirators may create a health hazard for some employees with certain medical conditions. Employees who wish to use them should follow up with a health care provider for medical evaluation.

Safety hazards include limitations on communication and vision that could substantially interfere with the employee’s ability to work safely.

What kind of masks can be worn voluntarily?

Employees may choose the type of mask to use -including required-use situations when a voluntarily upgrade to a more protective mask is desired. If certain masks create a safety, health, or security issue at work, the employee will need to choose a different mask.
Use of NIOSH-approved N95s, half-facepiece elastomeric respirators with filter cartridges, or hooded PAPRs (powered air-purifying respirators) with filter cartridges are recommended for most voluntary users.

Other options include less protective masks such as medical procedure masks.

What about medical clearance for respirator users?

You aren’t required to provide or pay for medical clearance related to COVID-19 voluntary respirator use.

However, as a best practice, you may choose to provide and pay for medical clearance when respirators will be voluntarily used. You can simply provide the employee a copy of medical questionnaire found in WAC 296-842-22005 (and translated into multiple languages) and follow the confidentiality and written opinion requirements in the Respirators rule.

Is fit testing required?

You have no obligation to provide or pay for fit-testing respirators when voluntarily used; however, you may choose to do so as a best practice. Respirators come in different sizes and a fit test ensures the respirator fits the user.

Am I required to provide training?

No, however, if you already provide training to employees required to use masks, it could be advantageous to offer the same training to voluntary users so that everyone can follow the same protocols, including how to properly put on, take off, dispose of and/or clean and store masks.