As Confusion Surrounds Mask Safety Standards, OSHA Clears Air

Frank Ferreri

Washington, DC ( – Face coverings in the workplace are a key component in the push to enhance worker safety in the age of COVID-19. However, as with much pandemic-related news and information circulating in the world today, misunderstandings and confusion about the safety of face coverings has arisen.

To clear up possible misconceptions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has updated its COVID-19 guidance to address mask-related issues as well as OSHA standards, as the following chart highlights.

Topic OSHA Clarification
Medical and surgical masks causing unsafe oxygen levels or harmful carbon dioxide levels Medical and surgical masks do not compromise oxygen levels or cause carbon dioxide buildup because they are designed to be breathed through and can protect against respiratory droplets.

“Most carbon dioxide particles will either go through the mask or escape along the mask’s loose-fitting perimeter,” OSHA advised. “Some carbon dioxide might collect between the mask and the wearer’s face, but not at unsafe levels.”

Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels while wearing cloth face coverings Cloth face coverings are loose-fitting with no seal and are designed to be breathed through. OSHA described any carbon dioxide build-up in cloth face coverings as “negligible” and emphasized that they “can help prevent the spread of potentially infectious respiratory droplets from the wearer to their coworkers, including when the wearer has COVID-19 and does not know it.”
Mistaken claims that the respiratory protection standard of 29 CFR 1910.134, the permit-confined space standard of 29 CFR 1910.146, and the air contaminants standard of 29 CFR 1910.1000 apply to oxygen or carbon dioxide levels of medical masks and cloth face coverings According to OSHA, these standards do not apply to the wearing of medical masks or cloth face coverings in work settings with normal ambient air. Instead, the standards “only apply to work settings where there are known or suspected sources of chemicals … or workers are required to enter a potentially dangerous location.”

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