Buried in the new Occupational Safety and Health Administration COVID-19 emergency temporary standard (ETS) is a reminder to employers about new alternative requirements for use of respirators to help control workplace exposure to the coronavirus. Respirators include devices such as N-95 masks that are intended to protect the wearer from infection. Regular face coverings such as cloth masks help prevent spread of airborne droplets to other people but afford limited protection to the wearer.
Prior to the pandemic, employers that mandated use of respirators had to follow strict guidelines with respect to employee training and fit-testing. Over the past 18 months, a number of employers complained that they were being cited by OSHA for failure to follow these requirements in an environment where they were trying to protect workers as soon as possible, and that the requisite fit testing equipment was in short supply.
In response to these complaints, in June OSHA adopted a new regulation (29 C.F.R. §1910.504) that allows use of a “mini-respirator” compliance program to comply with its emergency temporary standard that focused on the health care industry. The newer, general OSHA ETS also makes reference to the mini-respirator rule, although its masking requirements do not mandate use of respirators. This regulation allows employers to choose to require use of respirators to comply with masking and other requirements without the need to go through extensive training and fit-testing requirements. If the employer provides basic information about the use of the respirator, and requires users to conduct a seal check, they are deemed in compliance with this standard.
The rule does not apply to employees who choose to provide their own respirators in response to a general masking requirement. However, these employees should be given general information about the proper use of such devices. The mini-respirator rule is in effect until the health care ETS expires, even if the newer, general ETS is held up in the courts.