Use of “Face Coverings” and Compliance with OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard

Author: Marketing
Date: February 3, 2024

As federal, state and local governments advocate (and in some cases require) the use of cloth “face coverings” as a Covid source control measure, many businesses have questions about the regulatory compliance implications and whether use of face coverings is subject to the same requirements as use of respirators at work.

The OSHA respiratory protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134) establishes employer requirements when employees use respirators at work.  Regulatory requirements are identical under the Cal/OSHA respiratory protection standard (8 CCR 5144).  For OSHA, and Cal/OSHA, the term “respirator” refers to personal protective equipment (PPE) intended to protect the worker from inhalation exposures to hazardous materials (gas, vapor or particulate).  In all cases, respirators must be certified for their intended use by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Since face coverings are not respirators, use of face coverings at work is not subject to the requirements of the OSHA respirator standard, even if use of face coverings is required by the employer.

It is possible for workers to use disposable N-95 “filtering facepiece” respirators (or other “real” respirators) as a “face covering”.  In this case, the N-95 (or other respirator) is still being worn for source control purposes, not personal protection.

  • This assumes the wearer is allowed by their employer to wear other face coverings and is choosing to wear the N-95 (or other respirator).
  • If this use of a respirator is permitted (but not required) by an employer, then the employer would be subject to the OSHA requirements for “voluntary use” of respirators.
  • Voluntary use of filtering facepiece respirators (like N-95s) does not require a written respirator program, training, medical surveillance or fit testing, but employers do need to provide respirator wearers with the information in Appendix D of the respirator standard (https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.134AppD)
  • In addition to the appendix D information, if employers allow voluntary use of tight-fitting respirators (such as ½-face or full-face air purifying respirators), they must also provide medical evaluation to the wearer (but no written program or fit testing), so many employers choose not to allow voluntary use of tight-fitting respirators.

Where N-95s (or other respirators) are used on a voluntary basis as a source control measure, and the respirators do not need to maintain any certification or qualifications, the respirators can be cleaned and/or re-used as appropriate, based on hygiene, physical condition and similar considerations.

If employers require employees to use N-95 respirators (or any other respirator) for covid-control (or for any other purpose), then the voluntary use provisions no longer apply and the employer is subject to the applicable requirements of the respiratory protection standard, including written program, training, medical surveillance, fit testing, etc.

  • One covid-related example would be work activities in medical facilities, where workers are in close proximity to Covid patients and where workers are using respirators for their own health protection.

Do you have any questions about respiratory protection and Covid?  Or about respirator use in general?  Or any other workplace safety or environmental compliance issues?

Contact [email protected]

James Kapin, MPH, CIH, CSP
Director of EM Services,


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