Managing coronavirus (COVID-19) risks: Face masks in workplaces

Information about using face masks in workplaces to reduce the risk of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Directions and industry requirements are regularly updated

This guidance is correct as at time of publication, however, Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO) Directions and industry requirements are regularly updated. Readers of this guidance need to check the latest CHO Directions for applicability.

Restrictions apply across Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be required to be closed for on-site work
  • remain open for on-site work with a completed COVIDSafe Plan in place
  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations.

It is mandatory for every Victorian business with on-site operations to have a COVIDSafe Plan.

These restrictions may be updated at any time. You must stay up to date with any changes for your industry.

How are my occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations impacted by the restrictions?

There is no change to your obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) as a result of the restrictions.

Preparation of a COVIDSafe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work. However having a COVIDSafe Plan and complying with directions issued by the Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO) does not necessarily mean you have complied with your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any health directions that apply to how your business must operate, and ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the OHS Act. Employees must also comply with their duties under the OHS Act.

Background

Face masks are an important measure to help slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the community. The risk of transmission is highest where people are close to each other, and in enclosed spaces.

Every Victorian must carry a face mask when they leave home, unless they have a lawful reason not to.

Under Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO) directions, it is mandatory to wear a face mask in certain circumstances.

These circumstances are regularly updated based on the current risk of transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Victoria and in line with public health advice.

Employers must identify whether there is a risk to the health of their employees from exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) at their workplace. Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must eliminate the risk so far as is reasonably practicable and when elimination is not possible, reduce the risk so far as reasonably practicable. The controls an employer may use will vary depending on the situation and may include the use of face masks even where they are not mandated.

Types of face masks

When a face mask is required to be worn, you must wear a fitted face mask that covers the nose and mouth.

A face mask with three layers is recommended by the Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO), as it provides the best protection.

A face mask is always recommended, however a fitted snood or fitted gaiter is allowed. Fitted means the snood or gaiter can extend in a fitted form to snugly fit over and cover your nose and mouth.

Loose fitting face coverings such as bandanas or scarves, or face shields worn without a face mask, are not acceptable.

Identifying and controlling risks

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), employers must provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, by implementing suitable control measures so far as is reasonably practicable.

This can be achieved by applying the hierarchy of controls. The most effective control measures to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) are to:

  • physically isolate, for example by working from home where it is reasonably practicable
    • maintain a physical distance of at least 1.5 metres from others
      • practise good hygiene by regularly washing your hands or using hand sanitiser
        • cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow
          • maintain a thorough routine of cleaning and disinfection
            • wear a suitable fitted face mask

              Where masks are required to be worn under CHO Directions, employers must take reasonable steps to ensure that employees wear a face mask while at work.

              It is lawful not to wear a face mask at work when a risk assessment determines that wearing one would create a health and safety risk, or when doing any strenuous physical exercise or activity where you are out of breath or puffing. A face mask must be carried at all times and worn when the strenuous activity is finished.

              Consultation with employees and HSRs

              Employers must consult, so far as is reasonably practicable, with employees and health and safety representatives (HSRs), if any, on matters related to health and safety. This includes consulting on how face masks are implemented within the workplace.

              Consultation with individual employees may be required to identify whether wearing a face mask is appropriate for them, taking into account the lawful exceptions – for example, employees who experience problems with breathing, a serious condition of the face, a disability or a mental health condition.

              Using face masks in workplaces

              Where the work or task requires the use of specific types of face masks in the workplace, these must be provided by the employer.

              Employees have a duty to cooperate with their employer's actions to comply with their duties under the OHS Act.

              In some industries, specific types of face masks are required. Where the work or task requires the use of specific types of face masks in the workplace, these must be provided by the employer.

              Where an employee seeks to provide and use their own face mask at work, an employer must ensure that it is meeting its obligations under the OHS Act which includes, so far as is reasonably practicable, providing and maintaining a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes undertaking a risk assessment, ensuring that the face mask is safe and suitable for the workplace and work activities being performed, providing policies and procedures in relation to the use of face masks in the workplace and that the employee or independent contractor has received information, instruction and training in the safe use of face masks within the workplace.

              Employees may already wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to control risks associated with their work. Where RPE is worn at the workplace, the employer must conduct a risk assessment to ensure the level of RPE provided controls the risks associated with their work, including the risk of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19).

              The CHO direction to wear a face mask does not apply to people with breathing difficulties or any other condition that makes it difficult to wear one.

              For more information, call the Department of Health (DH) 24-hour coronavirus (COVID-19) hotline on 1800 675 398.

              Where employees have a lawful reason not to wear a mask, employers must implement other risk control measures, so far as is reasonably practicable, to control the risk of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace.

              For example, arranging for employees who are not wearing a mask to work in areas where there are less people and physical distancing of 1.5 metres can be maintained.

              Correct use of face masks

              Face masks are only effective when they are worn and maintained correctly. For example, it is very easy for a face mask to lose its effectiveness if it does not fit, if the front is touched while wearing it, or if it is not washed or disposed of appropriately.

              Employers must also provide information, instruction, training and supervision to employees and contractors on:

              • when face masks are to be worn
                • how to put on and wear face masks correctly to ensure they are effective
                  • how long face masks can be worn
                    • how to remove face masks safely, including changing them during shifts
                      • how to safely store and wash reusable face masks or dispose of single use masks

                        It is particularly important to provide training for reusable face masks (such as cloth masks), including for cleaning and storage.

                        Detailed information about the correct use of face masks, including how to safely put on, take off and clean or dispose of masks, is available:

                        Employers need to provide appropriate hygiene amenities for employees to safely put on, remove and dispose of face masks, such as hand washing facilities or alcohol-based hand sanitiser and rubbish bins.

                        Where employers provide reusable face masks, they should also provide facilities to clean them. Alternatively, employers may provide an adequate supply of reusable masks that will allow employees to rotate them and clean them at home. Masks should be provided with instructions on cleaning (for example, washing daily after use in hot soapy water) and appropriate secure storage to transport used masks safely (such as plastic zip-lock bags).

                        Employees have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, which includes following the information, instruction and training provided on how to correctly wear their face mask.

                        Controlling the risk of heat-related illness

                        The risk of heat-related illness may be increased while employees wear face masks in hot weather.

                        Employers should conduct a risk assessment when temperatures are expected to increase and face masks are required under the CHO directions, or recommended to be worn (for example where 1.5 metres distance from others cannot be maintained). Where a risk assessment has already been undertaken, review and revise where necessary. This should be reflected in the COVIDSafe Plan for the workplace.

                        Any risk assessment must be undertaken in consultation with employees and HSRs, and take into account:

                        • where the work is conducted (for example indoor or outdoor)
                          • temperature, humidity and air movement in the work environment
                            • nature and type of work tasks (for example physical workload)
                              • clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE)

                                Heat-related illness can be a risk in indoor and outdoor working environments. Employers need to implement control measures to reduce the risk, including those listed below.

                                For both indoor and outdoor work environments:

                                • consider whether the work can be conducted in a way that allows physical distancing of 1.5 metres to be maintained
                                  • ensure drinking water is readily accessible
                                    • revise work and rest schedules to allow employees sufficient time to rehydrate
                                      • where possible, this should include regular short breaks for employees to remove their masks to drink water
                                      • physical distancing measures must be maintained during breaks
                                    • provide employees with information, instruction and training to recognise early signs and symptoms of heat-related illness
                                      • where possible have a buddy system in place so that any signs of heat stress can be quickly identified and addressed
                                        • where possible ensure employees do not work alone
                                          • consider rotating duties to reduce each employee's exposure to heat, including rotation between outdoor and indoor work (where relevant)
                                            • reduce physical demands by using mechanical aids or additional resourcing
                                              • when face masks are likely to become damp or dirty, consider providing an additional supply of face masks to allow for regular replacement
                                                • use less restrictive face masks (for example surgical masks) where P2 masks are not required for the work that is being carried out

                                                  For indoor work:

                                                  • ensure the work area is ventilated as much as possible, for example by keeping doors and windows open
                                                    • where outside air is too hot for natural ventilation or there is no breeze, use air conditioning, ensuring the air conditioning system is using as much fresh air as possible, rather than recirculated air
                                                      • use blinds to block direct sunlight from windows

                                                        For outdoor work:

                                                        • consider whether any employees are at higher risk of heat-related illnesses when working outdoors
                                                          • provide a shaded area where employees can maintain physical distancing and remove their masks
                                                            • where possible, consider providing employees with face masks that are lightweight and a light colour
                                                              • if protective clothing is worn, such as coveralls, ensure it is lightweight, loose fitting and light in colour where possible
                                                                • re-evaluate the workload, taking into account the weather conditions and time of day when the work will be done
                                                                  • consider whether the work can be rescheduled to another time or day when the temperature will be cooler

                                                                  Legal duties

                                                                  Employers have duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), which include that they must, so far as is reasonably practicable:

                                                                  • provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors, including psychological health
                                                                  • provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health
                                                                  • monitor the health of employees
                                                                  • monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control
                                                                  • provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including (where appropriate) in languages other than English
                                                                  • ensure that persons other than employees of the employer are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer
                                                                  • consult with employees and HSRs, if any, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them

                                                                  Employees also have duties under the OHS Act, which includes that they must:

                                                                  • take reasonable care for their own health and safety
                                                                  • take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace
                                                                  • co-operate with their employer with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act

                                                                  The OHS Act gives HSRs a role in raising and resolving any OHS issues with their employer, and powers to take issues further if necessary. For more information see the guidance on powers for HSRs.