The legalities of face coverings in the workplace

Nick Wilson provides advice for employers in light of ever-changing guidance around wearing masks at work 

Now more widely worn in shops and other enclosed public spaces, almost everyone has a view on face coverings and their effectiveness in preventing the spread of coronavirus.

It is hardly surprising that opinion is divided when you consider that the official position has changed countless times since lockdown began. In the last couple of months alone, there have been multiple updates to the guidance, beginning with face coverings being made mandatory on buses, trains and coaches on 10 July. Later, on 24 July, we were told we must wear them in shops, supermarkets, shopping centres and enclosed transport hubs, and more recently the guidance was amended to suggest that people should be expected to wear coverings in unfamiliar settings ‘where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet’. This appears to extend the requirement to contractors, visitors, clients and normally field-based workers.

So why the constant changes, and what does this mean for workplaces?

The scientific standpoint

As well as direct contact with a contaminated surface, coronavirus can also spread via indirect contact – that is, by inhaling droplets containing the virus. For this reason, there was some debate as to whether face coverings should be worn by everyone in society.

Initially, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Public Health England said there was not enough evidence to say that healthy people should wear coverings. In fact, some studies proposed that this may actually put people at greater risk, as the droplet enters the space between the covering and the wearer’s face.

Of course, we are learning more about the virus all the time, and the WHO has since revised its advice after new information suggested that face coverings could provide ‘a barrier for potentially infectious droplets’. It said the general public should be encouraged to wear coverings where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult – and the different governing bodies within the UK have now updated their guidance accordingly.

The position on contractors and visitors

As businesses reopen and begin to operate more like they did in a pre-Covid world, it’s likely you will see an increase in the number of non-employees who are required to be in your workplace for genuine reasons.

Given the guidance now talks about wearing face coverings in unfamiliar settings, it would be reasonable to request that these individuals wear a face covering when entering and working in your workplace, unless this would interfere with any other personal protective equipment that is needed for the task.

Note that face coverings aren’t a form of PPE, so staff do not necessarily need to wear them, though they may choose to do so. It is only those who aren’t usual visitors to your setting that would be expected to wear one. Face masks, however, are required for staff in certain sectors and for certain activities.

Dealing with refusals

While you cannot legally enforce the wearing of coverings, if someone refuses to do so and doesn’t have a valid exemption, you are within your right to deny them entry to your premises. The police can also take measures such as issuing a fine, though they should be contacted as a last resort. Proactivity is best here; make your position clear ahead of time to avoid any confusion or confrontation.

Recommended action for employers

Within the workplace, our advice for managers is: 

  • Have a system in place to stay informed of any changes and follow the latest relevant advice.
  • If the use of coverings is mandatory in your sector or setting, ensure that guidance and signage is in place for coverings to be worn. 
  • Encourage workers to follow the guidance as it applies to settings outside of your workplace, such as on public transport on their commute to work.
  • Regularly review your risk assessment(s).
  • Seek professional advice and support where necessary.

Nick Wilson is director of health and safety services at Ellis Whittam