One of the biggest societal changes we have seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is the use of face masks. While these have been commonplace in China since the 1980s - and are considered to be effective in limiting the spread of infections and viruses - this is a new development across the UK and one that has been enforced to help curb the spread of coronavirus.
Now we have reached a stage of the virus where most of the government’s rules have been replaced by guidance only. From the 19 July 2021, despite not being a legal requirement, the government still recommends that people continue to wear masks in crowded indoor areas but are allowing businesses to set their own rules as to whether customers and employees need to continue wearing them.
One of the first organisations to announce their policy on masks was Transport for London (TfL), who said that all passengers and staff must wear a face covering and if they refuse, and are not exempt, they could be refused entry, denied travel, or told to leave stations and services.
Many supermarkets were also quick to announce their mask policies. Tesco, Morrisons, and Aldi are all “encouraging” customers and staff to wear masks, and Waitrose uses the word “urging” in its policy. But how useful are these words when it boils down to personal choice? Additionally, if the rules are not enforced, should businesses continue to offer guidance? These are just a few of the things that come to mind when implementing your own employee mask policy.
What exactly does the science say?
When it comes to the science behind face coverings, the opinions and guidance differ – although most scientists are generally in favour of them.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty has offered a three-part rule of thumb for continuing to wear a mask: in crowded indoor spaces; when required to by an authority; or to make someone else feel comfortable. The Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, also endorsed this approach. He said: “Masks are most effective at preventing somebody else catching the disease from you, and they have some effect to prevent you catching it.”
A study conducted in January 2021 by Howard and Huang et al. found “that population-level compliance with public mask wearing of 70% combined with contact tracing would be critical to halt epidemic growth” as well as “when used in conjunction with widespread testing, contact tracing, quarantining of anyone that may be infected, hand washing, and physical distancing, face masks are a valuable tool to reduce community transmission.”
However, according to BBC Health Correspondent Nick Triggle, the focus on mask wearing is disproportionate to the impact they have. He instead suggests that the most important measure is for people to isolate when ill and wearing a face covering is not going to significantly alter the course of rising infections. He may be correct in his view, however, they still play an important role in curbing the spread of coronavirus according to many scientists, and when it comes to the health and safety of your employees – caution is often preferable.
Can you – or should you – make face masks mandatory for employees?
According to the government’s advice, businesses must undertake a risk assessment and take reasonable steps to manage the health and safety risks of their employees, including the risks of Covid-19. This means that if a business deems Covid-19 a risk to their employees within the workplace, they can require or encourage staff to wear a face covering. It’s important to remember that although masks cannot be legally enforced, you can choose to include this in your business policy and mandate this for all employees – with failure to comply resulting in disciplinary action.
However, you need to consider the reasonable adjustments needed for staff with disabilities, and in circumstances where someone is exempt from wearing a face covering, you need to be respectful and mindful. To refuse employment based on exemption would be discrimination. On the other hand, where employees choose to wear a face covering, you need to support them in using them safely.
So far, most organisations that have made wearing a face mask compulsory are those where employees are inside, in large numbers or unable to social distance – such as trains, buses, airlines, ferries, and trams. Businesses are also making masks compulsory when moving around the workplace – where contact with other people is increased.
We spoke to Graham Clowes, Head of Compliance at the National Trust, about its stance on mask wearing: “We have followed government guidance throughout the pandemic and the safety of our visitors, volunteers and staff remains our top priority. In England, face coverings are recommended in enclosed and crowded areas. While we recognise it's voluntary, we recommend that our staff and volunteers wear a face covering in enclosed and crowded areas, and if they are working in close proximity to others”.
If you are considering making face coverings compulsory, you should make sure that there is a reasonable motive for this based on your risk assessment. This should be communicated clearly to all employees, and if someone objects, then each case should be investigated on an individual basis prior to any disciplinary action.
Should you leave it up to personal choice?
Some organisations are allowing employees to choose whether to wear a face covering. This may be because their risk assessment has determined that it is not necessary to ensure the health and safety of their workforce. However, evidence suggests that transmission of Covid-19 happens mostly indoors where people are close together, so companies with large office space and fewer employees, or those who work primarily outdoors, may consider face coverings a completely personal choice.
Should you still encourage use? You could argue that it is your responsibility as an employer to make sure that all staff are safe at work - so by offering guidance to encourage people to wear one where appropriate, you are taking reasonable steps to support your employees. In addition, the ramifications of not limiting the spread of coronavirus through mask wearing can also lead to more absences, periods of self-isolation, and therefore lost productivity.
Darren Long, Director of Client Relations at creative production company BCQ Group, said: “Like a great many businesses we will be taking a cautious approach. Mask wearing will be relaxed but is still expected when moving around the building or going into communal or crowded areas”. He also outlined that the firm is continuing to abide by social distancing regulations “as self-isolation rules are still in place until at least mid-August and can cause huge disruption to our operation if multiple staff are required to self-isolate.”
Is encouragement needed? Many people are willing to wear a mask at their workplace, so may not need encouragement from their employer. In our recent poll on LinkedIn, we asked almost 2,000 people if they would continue to wear a face covering at work. Almost half (47%) said they would, one in four said no, and 23% said it depends on the environment. This highlights the fact that most employees are not only happy to follow company policy on mask wearing, but also actively want to for their own health as well as that of their colleagues.
Ultimately, whether or not you decide to implement a face mask policy in your business, make sure you fully assess the risks of your workplace and prioritise your employees’ health and safety at all costs.
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