Should Face Masks Be Mandatory At Work? We Asked Experts

If it's mandatory to wear face coverings in shops, should it be the same for indoor work environments?

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Face masks should be mandatory in workplaces where people can’t physically distance, health experts have said.

With face coverings already compulsory on public transport and becoming mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England on July 24, experts say it seems reasonable that indoor workplaces should also follow suit.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association council, said requiring people to wear masks in shops, but not other situations where physical distancing isn’t possible – like work – is “illogical and adds to confusion” surrounding mask messaging.

Alexander Shelegov via Getty Images

Will masks be made mandatory at work?

It’s unlikely mask-wearing will be made mandatory in all workplaces, as they can be very different. People can work indoors, outdoors, in large offices that are ventilated and spaced out, or in small offices with no windows. They can work on construction sites with plenty of fresh air, or studios with others close by.

However, in indoor workplaces where physical distancing isn’t possible – if you can’t keep 2m away from others – it would make sense to wear a mask, health experts tell HuffPost UK.

Dr David Strain, a clinical academic at the University of Exeter Medical School, believes masks should be worn wherever 2m physical distancing can’t be maintained, such as shops, workplaces, hairdressers and even takeaways. “We have a short window to get the prevalence down to ‘viral eradication’ before we start battling Covid-19 along with flu, and a second peak becomes inevitable,” he says.

Mask-wearing at work should be legally mandated, he says, because if it’s left to companies to enforce the rules themselves, they’ll likely choose not to. “We know that as soon as something is mandated by law, people just do it.”

“We know that as soon as something is mandated by law, people just do it.”

- Dr David Strain, a clinician at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital

Others disagree with legally mandating mask-wearing at work. Professor Trisha Greenhalgh, an expert in primary care at University of Oxford, believes there should be national guidelines for employers that can be flexibly interpreted. Employers should take into account how closely people work together throughout the day, and how long they’re in close contact for, she says.

“Imagine 50 people in a big boardroom meeting, all just 1m apart, and one of them coughs,” she says. “It will be more risky than two people meeting in an office, also 1m apart”.

Ventilation is important, too, she says. “Draughty is good, negative pressure ventilation is good, but we’ve all heard about the Chinese restaurant where the air con seemed to suck in germs from one table and recycle them to another,” she says. She refers to the study of an air-conditioned restaurant in Guangzhou, China, where Covid-19 spread to three separate families eating in the restaurant – all of them sitting in proximity of the air conditioning unit. Researchers suggested strong airflow could have propelled the droplets between tables.

The last consideration for wearing a mask at work is the action you do while you’re working, says Prof Greenhalgh. “Speaking, shouting, singing are all bad,” she explains, indicating you’d want to wear a mask in environments where this happens. “If everyone’s quietly working at their desk, they have less need to wear a mask than if in a meeting.”

What mask should I wear to work?

Dr Strain, who is also a clinician at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, recommends people wear a homemade mask made from three layers of tightly woven material, such as cotton. For people who are in high risk groups, he recommends water resistant surgical masks.

He advises against wearing masks with valves “because they focus any droplets into one jet stream”, as well as face shields. These are not protective on their own and should be worn in addition to a face mask, rather than as a replacement, he says.

What are the benefits of mask-wearing at work?

Firstly, there’s the health justification, says Dr Strain. If we all wear one, we’re helping to protect each other from the possible spread of coronavirus. “The health point of view is clear – it’s the best way to prevent this virus spreading,” he says.

Dr Alison Pittard, head of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, agrees. She told The Guardian: “People might think Covid is over [and ask]: why do I have to wear a face mask? But it isn’t over. We still have Covid patients in intensive care. If the public don’t physically distance and don’t wear face coverings we could very quickly get back to where we were earlier this year.”

It also makes some economical sense to wear masks at work, suggests Dr Strain. From an employer’s point of view, if everyone is wearing a mask, the virus is less likely to spread and therefore they’d avoid “losing an entire office”.

An alternative to masks in the workplace could be perspex screens, like you see in hair salons and at supermarkets. “If employers want to erect those perspex-type screens into cubicles, that would give the same impact – and then people would need to wear masks when they go to the breakout areas,” he adds.

And the downsides?

Comfort, or the lack of it, is often cited as one of the key reasons people don’t wear masks. While wearing a mask on public transport or during a food shop might be manageable, some might struggle to wear one for a full working day. That said, if nurses and doctors can do it – why can’t everyone else?

There are concerns that using face masks might provide a false sense of security, too, meaning people won’t physically distance from others, wash their hands as often, or self-isolate if they do become ill.

And there’s a risk that improper removal of face masks, handling of a contaminated face mask, or an increased tendency to touch the face while wearing a face mask might increase the risk of transmission.

So, what happens now?

Downing Street has said it will keep the guidance on face coverings in other settings, such as offices, under review for now, the BBC reported.

If you’re worried about returning to work, speak to your employer about how they’ll ensure physical distancing and cleanliness in your workplace. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says if workers choose to wear face coverings, employers should support them to do so.

In the meantime, Dr Strain says he agrees with Sir Vallance that “there is no real reason for the majority of people to return to work in an office, and working from home is still the better strategy”.

“We should follow the guidance of most European countries suggesting that if you cannot work from home, then you should be wearing a mask in any situation at all where the 2-metre rule can’t be followed,” he says.