June 5, 2020

Washington Issues Guidelines on COVID-19 Masks for Workers

The Washington Department of Labor & Industries published new guidance on which types of face coverings are necessary for certain occupations to prevent COVID-19 infection at work.

The guidance stresses that while face coverings and masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, that they do not eliminate the need for physical distancing, frequent handwashing, cleaning and disinfecting, and other safety measures.

Occupations are broken into the following risk categories:

  • Negligible risk
  • Low risk
  • Medium risk
  • High risk
  • Extremely high risk

Negligible-risk jobs can involve working outdoors or in a building while around, but separate, from several other people where workers may only pass within six feet of others once or twice a day. These workers may require a cloth face covering. Cloth face coverings help particles that the wearer exhales from escaping in the air, but they do not effectively filter out particles already in the air from others.

Negligible-risk jobs can include telecommuters who are the sole occupant of an office with a door, small landscaping crews of three or four who work outside and apart from each other, and delivery drivers who have no face-to-face interactions with others.

Low-risk jobs are required to use cloth face coverings. Low risk jobs involve working around or traveling with others but staying at least six feet apart, except for briefly passing others up to several times a day. This can also include when one or two workers provide personal services to healthy clients who also wear a cloth face covering.

Examples of low-risk jobs include light manufacturing facilities, custodial staff who work after hours and do not clean known COVID-19 impacted areas, restaurant workers at curbside pick-up services, and mechanics.

Medium-risk jobs require disposable masks, which are usually more protective than face coverings, such as dust masks and surgical-style masks. Medium-risk jobs involve staying six feet away from others except for several times throughout the day when the distance barrier is broken for several minutes and physical barriers aren’t feasible

This can also include when three-to-six people provide personal services to healthy clients wearing a cloth face covering. Examples of medium risk jobs include commercial fishing crews, field workers transported to nearby planting sites, grocery store workers who work around customers, kitchen workers in restaurants, ride-service drivers who pick up masked passengers, and transit operators.

High-risk jobs require respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which offer a higher level of protection than face coverings and masks because they prevent wearers from inhaling particles already in the air.

High-risk jobs involve working or traveling within three feet of others for more than 10 minutes an hour, many times a day, or when cleaning or sanitizing COVID-19 impacted areas or providing services to clients with known COVID-19 infection.

Extremely-high-risk jobs require NIOSH-approved N95 respirators with cartridges or powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) with cartridges, or other FDA-approved equivalents. High-risk jobs must also use personal protective equipment (PPE) including goggles or face shields to protect the eyes and face, and surgical masks for clients to wear when feasible.

Extremely-high-risk jobs involving settings within six feet of people with COVID-19, or coming into close contact with exhaled saliva, mucous, or tears that may contain the virus. Transmission risk is also extremely high when coming into direct contact with peoples’ eyes, nose, or mouth. Examples of extremely high-risk jobs include EMTs, long-term care facility workers who care for clients ill with COVID-19, occupational or physical therapists providing therapy to quarantined clients, and more.

When respirators are required, employers must provide NIOSH-approved respirators and ensure requirements around medical evaluation, fit tests, training, maintenance, storage, and other provisions are fulfilled. N95 masks and other respirators require a clean-shaven face to form a protective seal.

This guidance does not apply to workers treating active COVID-19 patients in hospitals and clinics; those workers must follow CDC guidelines for selecting respirators and other PPE equipment.

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