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Understanding Voluntary Use of N95 Respirators on the Job

The quick spread of the Omicron variant and additional supply of N95s led the CDC to encourage Americans to replace their cloth face coverings with N95 respirators or KN95s. N95s are more effective at filtering virus particles from the air than a typical cloth face covering or standard surgical mask because of the materials they’re made of, the filtration they provide and because they form a seal around the wearer’s face when worn correctly. CDC guidance on choosing a mask or respirator for different situations includes a reminder that while some masks may be more effective than others, any mask is better than no mask at all.

Many Americans can now get N95s for free at pharmacies, grocery stores and other locations as part of the federal government’s effort to distribute 400 million N95 masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. Example scenarios of when you may want to choose the additional protection offered by an N95 include:

  • When caring for or being near someone who has COVID-19
  • If you’re at increased risk for severe illness (e.g., are immunocompromised or have certain underlying medical conditions)
  • When using public transportation
  • When in a crowded setting where physical distancing is difficult
  • If you’re not up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations (i.e., fully vaccinated with a booster shot)

Wearing N95 Respirators at Work

LHSFNA Management
Co-Chairman
Noel C. Borck

“While most construction work occurs outdoors where COVID-19 risk is lower, the LHSFNA supports workers seeking to protect themselves from potential COVID-19 exposure,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “We encourage employers to support voluntary use of N95s on the job and take steps to understand the differences between voluntary respirator use and use required under OSHA standards.”

Construction contractors may have questions about workers’ voluntary use of N95 respirators, especially if workers must also periodically wear them to comply with various OSHA standards. We break down the main issues and related questions below.

If the employer allows voluntary use of N95 respirators, does the employer have to fit test those workers?

No. Requirements that workers be fit tested and medically able to safely wear a respirator don’t apply to the voluntary use of N95s. Voluntary use of an elastomeric respirator (i.e., half-face with cartridges) or powered air-purifying respirator (i.e., full-face) would require a written respiratory protection program and need to ensure workers are medically fit to wear those devices.

Can employers provide N95s for voluntary use? If an employer provides N95s, does that make their use mandatory?

For voluntary use not related to an OSHA standard, employers can choose to purchase respirators or allow workers to bring their own. Choosing to provide N95s for voluntary use doesn’t make that use mandatory; it’s similar to employers choosing to provide foam earplugs as hearing protection even when tasks aren’t noisy enough to require them under OSHA’s noise standard.

What if workers voluntarily wearing N95s perform a task that requires an N95 or other type of respirator under an applicable OSHA standard?

Providing N95s for voluntary use is entirely separate from an employer’s obligation to provide appropriate respiratory protection when OSHA standards require them to reduce exposure below the permissible exposure limit (PEL). When workers perform a task that would require a respirator, the normal employer responsibilities regarding respirator use should immediately take effect. These responsibilities include providing a respirator appropriate to the task, training workers to wear the respirator correctly, having a written respiratory protection protection and following any other applicable aspects of the standard such as recordkeeping or medical monitoring.

What other legal obligations exist for employers allowing voluntary use of N95s?

When voluntary use of N95s is allowed, employers must provide workers with the information in Appendix D of OSHA’s respiratory protection standard. This information, which is included on page 102 of OSHA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide for the Respiratory Protection Standard, can be given either verbally or in writing. Appendix D informs workers to follow all manufacturer instructions for respirator use and maintenance, choose respirators certified by NIOSH, wear the proper respirator for the hazard (e.g., don’t wear an N95 to stop hazardous gases) and keep track of their respirator to avoid accidentally using someone else’s.

With no federal OSHA standards related to COVID-19, employers have been left with only OSHA and CDC guidance to decide how they’ll protect workers. Allowing voluntary use of N95 respirators on the job is one of many steps employers can take to reduce risk. For more information on other layers of protection, including encouraging vaccination and implementing effective social distancing and return to work policies, visit the Fund’s COVID-19 Resources page.

[Nick Fox]

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