The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) has warned that it is concerned about the absence of clear government guidance on the use of face coverings and, while not mandatory, has advised that it appears “reasonable” some employees would want to wear them in the workplace.
The society has published a report that outlines a range of key considerations for employers around whether to restrict, permit or mandate workers to wear face coverings and provides some advice on their safe use.
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BOHS president Kelvin Williams said: “We are acutely aware that the science around face coverings is far from clear. We also understand that the public health measures being recommended by the WHO and the government will lead people to have an expectation that wearing a face covering at work might be the right thing to do.
“The Society wanted to clarify the considerations that should be in the minds of employers when trying to assess complex risks and address their responsibilities.”
BOHS chief executive Kevin Bampton added: “Covid-19 continues to throw up areas where we cannot yet make informed decisions that are guided by science. The whole area of face coverings continues to be one of these. Employers are, to some extent, being asked to make up their own minds when they do Covid-19 risk assessments.”
The Face coverings and the workplace report says it seems “reasonable” to anticipate that many staff in “non-public” workplaces will insist on the use of face coverings, even when social distancing can be achieved, because of the levels of public anxiety about catching or passing on coronavirus.
It is critical of government guidance on the use of face coverings in environments such as public transport, stating that the government’s suggestion a face covering “can be as simple as a scarf or bandana that ties behind the head” is “not appropriate for any scenario where [the] public may be in close contact with employees (such as transport workers), or in work situations where social distancing during essential works is a difficulty”.
“In our opinion, the advice should at least clearly state that tight weave materials (such as cottons) are required and a reasonable facial fit achieved,” the report says.
The paper reminds employers to include in their risk assessments consideration of whether face coverings should be required, optional, or discouraged for safety or hygiene reasons.
It says that reasonable grounds for requesting that employees do not wear face coverings include the risk of snagging, impedance of the ability to undertake work effectively, and an overriding risk to the health of the workforce – for example, because of thermal exposure or hygiene precautions in food preparation.
Should an employer require employees to wear face coverings, the guide advises that the organisation is responsible for the provision of sanitary locations for their safe removal, such as suitable hand sanitisation and storage.