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OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards and regulations. Our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances, but they cannot create additional employer obligations. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. Note that our enforcement guidance may be affected by changes to OSHA rules. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can consult OSHA's website at https://www.osha.gov.
December 20, 2017
Mr. John Boren
3633 Wareham Drive
Thompsons Station, TN 37179
Dear Mr. Boren:
Thank you for your letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Your letter has been referred to the Directorate of Enforcement Programs for an answer to your question. Your letter requested clarification of OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134, pertaining to the voluntary use of surgical masks. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation only of the requirements discussed herein, and may not be applicable to any questions not delineated within your original correspondence. Your paraphrased question and our response are below.
Question: Is it permissible to allow surgical masks to be worn on a voluntary basis when respiratory protection is not required to meet any OSHA standards? And if so, is it permissible for employers to provide surgical masks for voluntary use?
Response: Yes. The employer may allow the voluntary use of surgical masks even where an exposure assessment shows respirator use is not required and the employer may provide surgical masks for voluntary use. However, surgical masks may not be used in lieu of required respiratory protection. Surgical masks are not considered respirators by OSHA and, as such, are not covered by 29 CFR 1910.134. They are fluid resistant, disposable, and loose-fitting protection that create a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment. They are commonly used in health care settings for the protection of the patient and they are also often used to prevent splashes from contacting the face of the wearer. However, surgical masks do not seal tightly to the wearer's face, nor do they provide a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles.
If the hazard to which your employees are exposed to is a combination of splashes and respirable contaminants, your company may want to consider NIOSH approved surgical N95 respirators which also are cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a surgical mask. Surgical N95s are filtering facepiece respirators equipped with spray- or splash-resistant facemask material on the outside to protect the wearer from splashes. Regardless of which type is used, the employees should be informed on the different varieties and their unique set of cautions, limitations, and restrictions of use. This information will facilitate employee involvement in the respirator program and/or the overall safety and health program.
For more information on surgical masks and surgical respirators, please review the Hospital Respiratory Protection Program Toolkit at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3767.pdf. OSHA also has a fact sheet that compares respirators and surgical masks titled Respiratory Infection Control: Respirators Versus Surgical Masks that is available at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/respirators-vs-surgicalmasks-factsheet.html.
Please be aware that the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development operates its own occupational safety and health program under an OSHA-approved State Plan. The Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) adopts and enforces standards and investigates safety and health concerns in workplaces throughout the state. State Plans are required to have standards and an enforcement program that are “at least as effective” as OSHA's, but may have different or additional requirements. Please contact TOSHA directly at the address below, for further information and to discuss your specific compliance issue:
Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development
220 French Landing Drive
Telephone: (615) 741-2793
Thank you for your interest in occupational safety and health. We hope you find this information helpful. OSHA's requirements are set by statute, standards, and regulations. Our letters of interpretation do not create new or additional requirements but rather explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. From time to time, letters are affected when the agency updates a standard, a legal decision impacts a standard, or changes in technology affect the interpretation. To assure that you are using the correct information and guidance, please consult OSHA's website at http://www.osha.gov. If you have further questions, please feel free to contact the Office of Health Enforcement at (202) 693-2190.
Thomas Galassi, Director
Directorate of Enforcement Programs