Masks or facial coverings have become a reality in our workplaces and will be so for months to come. CUPE has prepared this fact sheet to provide members with the most up-to-date information on precautions to prevent exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.

Health Canada has issued public health guidance suggesting that all Canadians wear masks in public, particularly when we can’t maintain physical distancing.

Why wear a mask? The primary purpose of wearing a non-medical/cloth mask is to prevent transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 if you are infected and unaware (asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic). Cloth masks are not appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers who are unable to maintain physical distancing of two metres (six feet).

Public Health guidelines on the use of facial coverings and masks are meant to be a baseline that we should all follow in all aspects of life, including employment. These are not the same considerations used for occupational health and safety practices in a workplace.

Workplace considerations rely on an analysis of the jobs being performed in relation to existing workplace hazards and may require additional precautions that go above and beyond the levels of protection that public health agencies prescribe for the general public.

Cloth masks and home-made facial coverings

Cloth masks and home-made facial coverings are not PPE and are not appropriate to use when working within two metres (or 6 feet) of a person who could potentially be carrying an infectious disease like COVID-19.

Facemasks

Facemasks are non-fitted (usually disposable) devices that create a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the person wearing the mask. There are several common types, most notably dust masks and surgical (or procedural) masks. These block splashes and large airborne particles from entering the airway of a worker wearing this type of mask. They will not completely filter out or block small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes or certain medical procedures, nor will they be a source of protection for other routes of entry into the body (such as uncovered eyes or through the ear canal).

In other words, facemasks do not provide complete protection from viruses or bacteria and other airborne contaminants because of the relatively loose fit between the surface of the facemask and your face.

Many CUPE workplaces use these types of masks as PPE for situations in which appropriate physical distancing (at least two metres, or 6 feet) cannot be maintained. Masks as PPE will be an important component of worker protection in many sectors but should not be a substitute for stronger protections such as engineering controls. See the CUPE guidelines

Respirators

Respirators such as N95s filter the air and remove fine particles. In health care or workplaces providing client care, these types of equipment have been reserved for use during aerosol-generating medical procedures (AGMP’s). Such procedures have a higher demonstrated risk of infection to workers in the vicinity.

A respirator will not protect a worker if it does not fit properly. Respirators which are designed to fit snuggly onto the face (known as “tight fitting”) must be properly fit-tested to each worker to ensure it is the correct size.

A “fit test” is a procedure that physically tests the seal between the respirator’s face piece and a worker’s face. It must be performed using the same size and model of respirator the worker will be using on the job. Fit-testing should be performed every year to ensure that people’s facial structure has not changed as a result of a significant weight change or facial hair. People also need to be trained to properly put on (“don”) and take off (“doff”) this type of PPE.

Note: Due to the potential of the virus that causes COVID-19 to exist in an aerosolized form, CUPE has advocated throughout the pandemic for respirators to be available to any workers in proximity to suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.

CUPE recognizes the higher risk present during AGMPs and the necessity of ensuring that respirators are available for those procedures. Once the supply shortage is resolved, we will continue to advocate for expanded access to N95 respirators for all workers who work in proximity to suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.