OSHA on Cloth and Surgical Masks


OSHA recently launched an in depth COVID-19 section on OSHA.gov to address COVID-19 health and safety in the workplace. It contains news and updates, frequently asked questions, hazard recognition, standards, medical information, control and prevention, and additional resources. You can read the whole thing here: OSHA COVID-19.

OSHA specifically addresses a couple of questions we frequently get here at Major Safety: (1) Given the current pandemic, has OSHA changed its requirements on masks; (2) Has OSHA addressed the efficacy of surgical masks and cloth face coverings for workplace safety?

(1) Respirator Requirements

OSHA has not changed or adjusted its requirements on masks for general industry and construction. Employers are still required to provide proper respiratory protection per the general industry standard on respiratory protectionĀ 29 CFR 1910.134.

They do understand that supply on proper respiratory protection is limited and so are "providing temporary enforcement discretion around the requirements of certain standards, including the Respiratory Protection standard."

OSHA says that a criteria for thisĀ enforcementĀ discretion is that employers must be making "good-faith efforts to get NIOSH-certified N95 filtering facepiece respirators or other appropriate NIOSH-certified respirators and are unable to do so."

Please note, at the time of this article, we do have and are able to get P100 filters for North half face andĀ full faceĀ respirators.

(2) Efficacy of Cloth Face Coverings and Surgical Masks Versus Respirators

OSHA has also specifically addressed the use of cloth face coverings and medical masks in lieu of proper NIOSH approved respiratory protection. As just noted, they have not relaxed 29 CFR 1910.134 requirements. But given the prevalence of cloth face coverings and medical masks, they do address them specifically.

Cloth Face Coverings

OSHA defines a cloth face covering as "commercially produced or improvised (i.e., homemade) garments, scarves, bandanas, or items made from t-shirts or other fabrics."

They recognize that such masks are, "worn in public over the nose and mouth to contain the wearer's potentially infectious respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks..."

They make clear, however, that such coverings are, "not considered personal protective equipment (PPE)." And they warn that these masks, "will not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents due to loose fit and lack of seal or inadequate filtration."

Surgical MasksĀ 

OSHA defines a surgical mask as one "cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as [a] medical device." They warn that if a mask does not have FDA approval as a medical deviceĀ that, even though it may look like one, it isn't one.

FDA approved surgical masks "are used to protect workers against splashes and sprays (i.e., droplets) containing potentially infectious materials, andĀ are used in medical contexts to "contain the wearer's respiratory droplets." They can be placed "on sick individuals to prevent the transmission of respiratory infections that spread by large droplets."

Despite the aforementioned protection offered in medical contexts, OSHA gives the same warning for surgical masks that they do for cloth face coverings. They say that surgical masks "will not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents due to loose fit and lack of seal or inadequate filtration."


OSHA contrasts the above masks with NIOSH approved respirators. Such masks are designed specifically to "prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including airborne transmissible or aerosolized infectious agents."

Respirator masks must be made of "proper filter material" such as N95 or better and must be tight fitting.

Importantly, respirator masks, "require proper training, fit testing, availability of appropriate medical evaluations and monitoring, cleaning, and oversight by a knowledgeable staff member."


Given the above differences, OSHA advises, "employers must not use surgical masks or cloth face coverings when respirators are needed." Such masks are notĀ substitutes for the level ofĀ filtration that only real respirators provide.

OSHA specifically cites its "substance-specific standards" for particles like asbestos, silica, lead, welding fumes, etc., and makesĀ clear thatĀ these standards "remain in place." They warn that "surgical masks [and cloth masks] are not an acceptable means of protection" for such particles.

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Posted by Corby Amos on

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About the Author

Corby has over 25 years of experience in the safety industry. His area of specialization is confined space, gas detection, and fall protection equipment and applications. He's advised hundreds of contractors, cities, manufacturing plants, and government agencies on what equipment best suits their applications.

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