While masks do not offer much protection against contracting the virus for those who wear them, individuals who wear them while contagious themselves — whether knowingly or not — can greatly reduce their chance of spreading COVID-19 to others.

President Trump’s recent illness and return to the White House while not wearing a mask sparked a conversation about masking in the workplace, especially when the boss or certain coworkers do not do it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide a safe workplace and recommends that employers encourage staff to wear masks.

Are masks required in the workplace?

While OSHA recommends mask use, it is not mandated. Unless there are applicable state laws, employers have the sole discretion about instituting policies regarding mask use or the use of other protective equipment, like gloves and face shields, in their workplace.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, an estimated 86% of organizations implemented or considered implementing protective measures. About 73% were thinking about or instituting medical screenings or temperature checks on site.

Employees do have the right to voice concerns over safety protocols, including mask use. They can even take steps to better ensure other employees’ safety on the worksite if their employer does not take the precautions themselves.

Strategies for instituting safety changes

Some employers may be resistant to hearing safety concerns, but here are some strategies for getting concerns addressed:

  • Talk to the manager: Talking to a manager under the owner or boss may be a good way to start a conversation. Point out any violations of city, state or federal laws, which actually enables the company to avoid future lawsuits or fines.
  • Talk to HR: Larger companies with HR departments are likely more compliant, but it still may be necessary to talk to someone in HR. OSHA rules prevent retaliation for doing so.
  • Ask for accommodation: An employee (or family member at home) with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19 or other contagious illnesses can request measures to better protect their safety.
  • File a complaint: If the employer takes no action after an employee voices safety concerns, the next step can be to file a complaint with OSHA, the local health department or the state attorney general’s office. In response, they will likely notify the employer or perform a site inspection.

Employees have rights

A number of laws protect employees’ rights. Those concerned about their safety or well-being may need to speak with an employment law attorney. They can advocate for employees’ rights, particularly if there is evidence of retaliation for speaking up.