Could wearing face masks become compulsory as part of lockdown easing? Here’s how to implement them

Advice for employers from leading health and safety expert, Lee Mills, Director of Health and Safety at Citation.  Here, Lee considers the type of face masks employers could use at work and how employers can create a culture of wearing them.

With mounting economic pressures to ease the lockdown in the UK and allow employees to return to work, businesses face a big decision on how they act responsibly and protect staff from any further spread of the disease.

Many businesses will be waiting for the government and its scientific advisors to confirm whether it should become mandatory for the public to wear face masks.
In other countries, including Germany, face masks have now become mandatory.

Whilst there is a lot of debate around how much a mask protects you from other people; there seems to be some consistency in the belief that wearing a face mask protects others from being infected by you – so which type should you provide?

ICU Quality Masks

Medical professionals in ICU wards are commonly wearing an FFP3 face mask, this is ‘tight-fitting RPE’ (Respiratory Protective Equipment) and as such, in the workplace, needs a face fit test under the COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) Regulations, to ensure this type of mask provides a suitable fit to your face.  The wearer of such a mask needs to be clean-shaven, because just one day’s growth will affect the seal of the mask on your face, putting you at risk. It’s like trying to seal a vacuum bag with Velcro – air will get in around the edges of the mask and hence will be unfiltered and could harm you.

The HSE recently said that an N95 or FFP2 face mask ‘may be an acceptable, pragmatic compromise’ when working with Coronavirus patients. However, these masks are needed for frontline workers and are difficult to obtain and very expensive – an FFP3 face mask would be a couple of pounds before the pandemic, now they cost around £20 each.

Surgical Masks

However, due to supply issues with FFP3 and FFP2/N95 face masks, we may be asked to wear medical/ surgical face masks which are not tight-fitting.  While these are nowhere near as effective in protecting the wearer, they do offer protection for others if the wearer is the carrier.

Helping employees adapt

Another big challenge businesses face, is how they actually get employees to wear a face mask.

The psychology of wearing a mask is that it protects against an invisible hazard and the consequence of not wearing one is not immediately apparent, if you don’t wear your mask, it doesn’t mean you will get Coronavirus so we, as human beings, don’t always see the need to wear one.

It’s similar to speed cameras – if you go through one in a 30 mph zone at 60 mph, you know you will get the flash and a letter in the post. So, you slow down; your behaviour is modified. However, how long does that modify your behaviour for? To the end of the white lines…

In the health and safety world, we talk about a consequence needing to be PICNIC for it to take effect – Positive Immediate and Certain or Negative Immediate and Certain. A speed camera is Negative, Immediate and Certain. Not using a face mask does not provide an immediate consequence, therefore, for us to use RPE consistently in the workplace, you firstly need to provide coaching and education into why you are asking your employees to wear such equipment.

Visual Reminders

Employers should encourage mask wearing with visual reminders in the workplace such as posters. Ensure line managers and leaders ‘lead by example’ and verbally reinforce the rules in casual conversation. Businesses also need to create a culture where it’s okay to question someone not wearing a mask without it becoming confrontational.

Businesses should take note though, wearing a face mask in public is one thing, an employer providing one for employees is very different. In the workplace, the Health and Safety at Work Act applies, within this act it states: It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.

If you provide a face mask for your employees then you have a duty of care to ensure it is suitable and sufficient and that your employees are given suitable information, instruction, training in the use of the mask.

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work and COSHH Regulations also apply here, which means businesses must undertake a risk assessment to determine which mask to use and to ensure the wearing of the mask doesn’t introduce other hazards.

For further information/ guidance on RPE and fitting, visit –
https://www.hse.gov.uk/news/face-mask-ppe-rpe-coronavirus.htm