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Warehouse workers in PPE

How Does PPE Fit into Return to the Workplace Planning Efforts?

Get some guidance on what level of protective equipment employers may need to provide to workers as part of their return to the workplace strategies.

As countries around the world continue to loosen restrictions around stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19, one acronym keeps appearing in the news: PPE. Short for personal protective equipment, PPE is defined by the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as “equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses. These injuries and illnesses may result from contact with chemical, radiological, physical, electrical, mechanical, or other workplace hazards. Personal protective equipment may include items such as gloves, safety glasses and shoes, earplugs or muffs, hard hats, respirators, or coveralls, vests and full body suits.”

The reason why PPE continues to make headlines is that contraction and transmission of the COVID-19 virus are still being researched. As a result, employers are examining whether they need to provide workers with PPE or other protective equipment as part of their respective return to the workplace strategies. The short answer is that it depends.

Misapplying the “PPE” Term
First, let us reexamine the PPE definition above. Notice that masks or non-medical, cloth face coverings – common requirements for many businesses operating under restricted conditions today – are not named expressly. This omission is important. As such, companies that mandate that its workers wear such face coverings and who call the coverings “PPE” are incorrect.

The purpose of a cloth-based face covering is to prevent transmission and the expelling of any germs from the person wearing it. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), therefore, recommends wearing cloth face coverings in settings when physical distancing is not an option and especially in geographies of high community-based transmission.

However, as mentioned above, such masks are not a part of the official PPE definition. Instead, the medical masks categorized as PPE include N95 masks, which are, in fact, respirators designed to keep wearers from inhaling dangerous particles in the workplace. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends their use by health workers, those symptomatic of COVID-19, those caring for infected people outside of healthcare facilities, and those who are otherwise at-risk (i.e., they have underlying health conditions.)

Medical-grade respirator masks remain in short supply, and there are criteria around who should wear them and how. In the US, for example, some state governments have reserved such equipment for healthcare workers only. To our knowledge, neither OSHA nor the CDC has made N95 masks mandatory in all workplaces.

How Should Companies Approach Worker Protection?
If PPE is going to be used in a place of work, businesses should institute a clear PPE program to educate workers about the potential dangers they may encounter during the day, when wearing PPE is required, and, perhaps most importantly, how to put it on, remove it, and care for it correctly. In other words, training, usage, and monitoring are just as critical as equipment selection.

Maintaining a safe and healthy workplace must be a business priority. Ultimately, what companies decide to mandate comes down to industry type, results from a hazard assessment of the physical workspace, and determinations on how best to help mitigate workers’ anxieties about being in the physical workplace again. For example, the oil and gas industries, with people working on platforms or at locations where they live and work closely together for a number of days at a time, could present similar challenges to those faced by the military and cruise ships, meatpacking plants, and other industries where people work in close proximity to one another. Conditions are different there compared to your typical office setting, where requiring workers to wear their own non-medical face coverings, washed daily at home, could be sufficient. But if the business wants to require more elevated protection like PPE, they should be prepared to provide and pay for them, or be willing to compensate employees and contract workers for the specific equipment’s expense.

When necessary to protect workers from job-related risk, OSHA requires employers to pay for PPE with few exceptions. Examples would be equipment used to comply with OSHA standards such as hard hats, safety glasses, fall protection, and face shields.

Of note, at this time, there is no definitive answer to the question of potential liability to employers for providing masks or face coverings to workers who do not bring one to work should the worker later become sick due to COVID-19 exposure in the workplace. While the risk of that type of claim is likely low, a lot will depend on a company’s overall plan for returning. At the end of the day, a company has an obligation to provide a safe workplace for its employees and contract workers. That duty existed pre-COVID-19. So, to meet its duty of care as the employer who controls the worksite, a business requiring face coverings should be prepared to provide masks to those who come to work without one or to send home workers who come to work without one.

For further reading, refer to WHO’s rational use of PPE and considerations during severe shortages document. Intended for those involved in managing and distributing PPE, the interim guidance can help companies navigate issues around PPE use. Be sure to also refer to your country-specific government websites for regulations and guidelines around the use of PPE, as well as worker and health organizations. Examples include:

Minimizing Health Exposure in the Workplace

In many traditional business environments, making appropriate workspace modifications to enable physical distancing and reduce health risks will make workers feel looked-after and safe while performing their jobs. Based on the nature of the business, the physical construct of the workplace, and workers’ comfort in returning, it is up to companies to increase the levels of precautions they institute.

The more care a company takes to protect its workers by implementing practices that help slow, limit, and avoid outbreaks of the virus at the worksite, the greater overall protection the company will have from complaints to unions, OSHA violation claims, illnesses, and absenteeism.

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