Who could have foreseen how quickly Canadians would adapt to wearing face coverings? They’re everywhere on city streets, in shops, and in workplaces where physical distancing isn’t always possible.
It’s one thing to get in the habit of wearing face coverings. It’s another to know all about how to properly care for, use, handle and dispose of them. Our experts have some advice.
“Face coverings are a form of source control,” explains WSPS Industrial Hygienist Kelly Fernandes. “They are primarily intended to reduce the risk of people transmitting large droplets while they cough, sneeze and talk. However, as wearers we can unintentionally contaminate our own face coverings.”
We asked Kelly for suggestions on how we can protect others and ourselves from contamination. She offered the following best practices.
1. Make sure face coverings are an appropriate solution. If you haven’t already conducted a COVID-19 exposure hazard assessment, do so. Treat face coverings as just one component of a comprehensive hazard control strategy. They are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE), and are no substitute for engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, or necessary PPE.
2. Train employees on the proper use and handling of face coverings. For instance:
- always put on and remove a face covering using the ear loops. The front of the covering may have been contaminated, so touching it and then your face could spread the contamination.
- never hang a face covering from your ears or pull it down around your chin or neck. Doing so risks contamination, either from touching the front of the covering with your hands or from droplets that may have accumulated on your neck from a recent conversation.
- replace face coverings if they become wet during the shift (e.g. from perspiring or sneezing).
- if you wear cloth face coverings, wash them after every shift.
3. Create a safe way for employees to protect their face coverings when not wearing them, such as when eating or being physically distant from other employees. Where possible, supply each person with a container with a lid, and have employees place their covering in the container with the outside of the covering facing up so that, if another employee coughs or sneezes while not wearing a mask, droplets won’t land on the inside of the covering. If containers are not possible, ensure employees have a clean, decontaminated spot where they can place their mask, while ensuring they cover it or place it in a paper bag.
4. Discourage single-use face masks unless no other option exists. Researchers estimate that 129 billion disposable face masks have been thrown out every month since the global pandemic began. These blue, pleated face masks are made from plastic that may take hundreds of years to break down. If your employees have no option other than these single-use masks, ensure your workplace disposes of them safely. Install lined waste bins at entrances, exits and other key locations. Ensure the bin handles are sanitized before and after the bins are emptied, then sanitize the bin.
5. Regularly reinforce the need to wear and look after face coverings. Create a communication plan with texts, posters, emails, pre-shift meetings and anything else that helps keep proper use top of mind. “If you send employees daily reminders to pre-screen before leaving home, include a reminder to bring a supply of clean face coverings.”
6. If employees resist wearing face coverings for personal reasons, explore alternatives, especially for employees who have underlying medical conditions (e.g. asthma, eczema) that make masking difficult or uncomfortable. For other workers, if there are no alternatives, have open discussions to determine the reason for non-compliance. We need to ensure our workers understand the reason for instituting specific controls and the expectations of compliance. In the end, be prepared to initiate disciplinary action if necessary. “It’s the same as if an employee had removed a guard from a machine,” says Kelly. “These are health and safety protocols the organization has identified as important and must be followed.”
1 “COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics,” [IT]Environmental Science & Technology[IT], June 20, 2020; https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.0c02178
2 The process for this is the same as for any other accommodation: ensure the worker feels supported, refer to a medical professional for appropriate recommendations for accommodation, and keep the lines of communication open.