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Implementing mask use in the workplace

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

by Laetitia Adkins

The law is changing, and from this week the government will be enforcing face mask wearing amongst retail and hospitality staff.

Some employers might face challenges while trying to implement these policies:

  • staff may be adverse to the idea of wearing face coverings, especially for long periods of time;

  • it may be a big cost to the company to supply face masks to their staff;

  • you may have staff with accessibility needs that are affected by mask wearing.

Here is some information to help you if you are trying to implement full mask use within the workplace.

Key points

  • Face masks should be changed every few hours, or if they get wet. When people change their masks, they should wash their hands before and after touching their masks.

  • Lots of organisations are donating cloth face masks for those who can’t afford them; use our database or contact us to find some.

  • Face masks are safe to use, and won’t change the oxygen or carbon dioxide saturations in your body.

  • Be sensitive to the accessibility needs of your staff and customers.

Key questions

What if my business can’t afford to supply everyone with face masks?

The continuous cost of disposable masks, or the upfront purchase of cloth masks can be significant for smaller businesses and start-ups.

Luckily, there are lots of organisations and makers out there who have donated their time and resources to making masks available to all. By using our database, you should be able to find makers who are happy to help supply cloth masks, either by donating or offering a pay what you can afford policy.

You can also reach out to local groups, as one-man bands tend to be cheaper than bigger organisations. Consider using our Facebook Group which is designed to connect mask makers with the people who need them.

If you are looking to use disposable masks, there’s less out there to help with the cost of these unless you are supplying the frontlines of medicine and care work. It is best to avoid using disposable masks where possible in order to reserve PPE for frontline staff, and minimise waste that negatively impacts the environment.

My staff think that masks will affect their health

Face masks are perfectly safe to use, provided they are made with breathable materials and are changed if they start to feel damp or wet.

All the evidence shows that face masks do not affect the oxygen saturation in our blood, or cause CO2 build up.

If face masks become wet, they do become less effective, harder to breathe through, and more likely to cause skin irritation. For this reason, they should be changed regularly - either every 2-3 hours, or earlier if someone has been working in a physically intensive way.

Face masks can change the way that people breathe very slightly, if people start to feel claustrophobic or as through breathing is difficult. People may find that they take more frequent breaths. If someone is particularly sensitive to wearing a mask, this change in breathing can become uncomfortable over time, even causing headaches. In these cases it’s advisable that people use masks made with more breathable fabrics (e.g. cotton), and in a style that is more comfortable for them. It may also help them to take breaks to go outside and breathe in the fresh air (away from other people), to reset their breathing.

The only time a face mask may present a risk to someone is if they have a pre-existing lung disease.

If you want further information to assure your staff that there are no ill health effects from wearing face masks, we recommend the following links:

World Health Organisation - Myth Busters

The Physiological Society - Are face masks reducing the oxygen in your blood?

American Lung Association - Covid masks

How do I ensure my staff use face masks safely?

Encourage staff to change their face masks every few hours, or if they start to feel damp. Over time, face masks become wet because they are catching the water in our breath. When wet, they do become less effective, harder to breathe through, and more likely to cause skin irritation.

Encourage staff to avoid touching their face masks between changes. If your staff are touching or adjusting their face masks a lot, it may be worth considering whether the masks are uncomfortable. Effective face masks fit well, leaving no gaps, and are comfortable to wear without needing to adjust them.

Encourage staff to wash their hands if they need to touch or change their face masks. Ideally, they should wash their hands before and after touching their masks.

When changing their masks, staff should try to avoid touching the front of the mask and use the elastics to take it on and off. They should ideally change their mask in a well ventilated area, away from other people.

Remember that face masks should cover both your nose and mouth. If someone is wearing their mask under their nose because they find it hard to breathe, it’s worth talking to them sensitively about it and finding out what the problem is. They might just need a mask made out of a more breathable material, that has a different, more comfortable fit.

My staff find face masks uncomfortable

It’s true - some face masks can be really uncomfortable! But they don’t have to be.

Try to ensure that everyone has a mask that meets their size requirements (just like with uniform), which will help enormously. There are lots of one-size-fits-all masks out there, and unfortunately one size does not always fit all! If these are one-size cloth masks, they are also likely to be made of a stretchy material, which is less effective at filtering water vapour and droplets than a stiffer fabric.

It can help to avoid masks with ear loops - opt for elastics and fastenings that go around the back of the head instead. Alternatively, there are ways to avoid keeping ear loops on your ears the whole time - you can affix buttons to the arms of glasses, or use various ear saving devices (3D printed pieces, or headbands with buttons) to help with loops.

If you want to find more information about this, check out our guide to choosing the right face mask.

Everyone wears glasses, nobody can see!

Foggy glasses are avoidable! First of all, it’s probably worth considering face masks with a better fit - if glasses are fogging no matter what your employees try, this is probably the first thing to consider.

There are other tips and tricks for preventing fogging as well. Most people find that wearing their glasses slightly further down their nose helps - some even sew a button on to make a natural resting place! Another option is to wipe a little bit of dish soap over the inside of glasses. This will create a film that prevents them from steaming up.

What if my staff have accessibility needs?

Some people have accessibility needs that make it difficult to either wear face masks, or interact with others who are wearing face masks.

If some of your staff or customers are lip-readers, you may need to lower your face covering while maintaining social distance in order to communicate effectively. This is a legitimate reason to take off your face covering.

If some of your staff or customers are lip-readers, you may want to consider investing in face masks with clear windows that show the lips and mouth. You can use our database to find makers that are producing these kinds of masks. Some of your staff may have sensory needs, breathing difficulties, or other disabilities that prevent them from wearing a face mask. In these cases you should be sensitive to your employee’s needs, and encourage other staff to be considerate as well. If needs be, they may want to consider getting a sunflower lanyard to show that they have a hidden disability, and are exempt from wearing a face covering.

How do I encourage those who can wear face masks to wear face masks?

Some people will respond better to being presented with facts and sources; others might respond better to the feeling around face masks in the workplace. Very few people respond well to being shamed into compliance, including when it comes to wearing face masks.

Try to normalise face mask usage in the workplace. Lead by example, and show that you are happy to wear a face mask.

Consider wearing and allowing the staff to wear face masks with fun patterns and colours on - it can really help if people are having fun expressing themselves and commenting on each other’s masks!

A few more bits of advice

Try to provide and encourage staff to wear cloth masks where possible. This helps reserve PPE for the workers that need them most, and helps protect the environment.

It may still help to keep a back-up box of disposable masks on site for days when people forget to bring their own, or if visitors come in.

Make it easy to dispose of disposable masks - you might want to put a bin outside the workplace for people who are leaving.

Face visors or face shields should not be used instead of face masks. They were originally designed to be used with other PPE and to act as extra protection. The gaps around the sides and underneath mean that they still allow unfiltered breath to escape, and they do not stop the wearer from spreading the virus.

People may be less likely to drink regularly if their faces are covered (just because there's an extra barrier in place). Encourage staff to stay hydrated, as otherwise they might start to associate dehydration headaches with wearing a mask!

Remember: face masks shouldn't be used as a stand-in for social distancing or good hand hygiene. Continue to encourage these practices in your workplace, and keep everyone safe.

If you need more information, check out our other pages:

How do face masks work?

Face masks 101

Guide to choosing the right face mask

Find face masks

More questions? Get in touch

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