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Should Employers Return to a Mask-Free Workplace? (Part 2)

by the HR Team at East Coast Risk Management

On May 20, 2021, we offered guidance to our readers on whether employers should return to a mask-free workplace, which can be read here.  The information presented in this article updates our earlier guidance on the topic.

Last month, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People. The guidance provided that those who are fully vaccinated “can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”  The guidance further provided that unvaccinated individuals should continue to follow all measures to protect themselves from COVID infection, including mask wearing. To read more on the CDC’s recommendations, click here.

Since our last blog, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued a Mandatory COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”) that pertains to most employers in the healthcare industry.  Under the ETS, certain healthcare employers must continue to follow all preventive measures to stop the spread of COVID, including for their vaccinated employees.  In other words, the ETS is stricter than the CDC on COVID safety protocols since it demands that the rules remain unchanged for the vaccinated, including the wearing of masks.  Failure to adhere to the ETS can result in an OSHA citation and penalties.  To view OSHAS’s full ETS, click here.  To see if your workplace is covered by the new COVID-19 Healthcare ETS, please refer to the flowchart developed by OSHA here.

OSHA also issued new guidance for most employers in other industries.  This guidance essentially lines up with the CDC’s as it recommends the unvaccinated still follow the same preventive measures while relaxing preventive measures for the vaccinated.  Unlike the ETS, the general guidance is not mandatory.  For more information on OSHA’s general guidance, please click here.

As our readers probably know, most state and local authorities continue to issue and change their rules on COVID prevention. For instance, Pennsylvania is most likely lifting all COVID restrictions, including masks, on June 28, 2021.

In light of these changes, consider the following before returning to a mask-free workplace:

  • Review and take into consideration the current guidance of the CDC.
  • Review and follow OSHA regulations where mandatory (like the ETS) as this organization regulates and enforces rules regarding safety in the workplace.
  • Check state and local regulations as these could be more stringent than the CDC and OSHA and may require your employees to continue to wear masks even if they are vaccinated.
  • Review how many of your workers remain unvaccinated. If the percentage is high and they interact with others face to face, allowing them to unmask may create a high risk that they get sick.  This could result in a large part of your workforce being out sick.  This would interrupt your business operations and may catch OSHA’s attention under what is known as the General Duty Clause, which means you could  face an OSHA citation and penalty if too many become sick with COVID where no preventive measures were in place.

If the law supports a mask-free workplace for you, here are some recommendations that may assist you in protecting those employees who are unvaccinated:

  • Encourage employees to get vaccinated. Consider incentives such as granting paid time off to get vaccinated or other small rewards.
  • Consider hosting an onsite COVID-19 vaccine clinic for your employees.
  • Consider taking advantage of the tax credits under the America Rescue Plan for businesses with fewer than 500 employees. To learn more about this option click here.
  • Remind unvaccinated workers to stay home and contact you immediately if they have been in close contact with another person infected with COVID-19.
  • Continue to remind ill employees to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Continue to use or implement physical distancing markers for those that may be unvaccinated.
  • Consider limiting the number of unvaccinated employees in one place at the same time. Options could include implementing staggered start and break times and telework.
  • Assess and address issues if you have a high percentage of unvaccinated employees sharing tools, equipment, and sharing common transportation throughout the workday.
  • Continue to focus on enhanced cleaning measures, including focusing on communal work areas such as breakrooms, locker rooms, and other high traffic areas.
  • Provide face coverings at no cost and suggest that unvaccinated guests to the workplace wear face coverings.
  • Ensure employees have an opportunity to address safety concerns. You may want to consider an anonymous process and educate employees on how to properly report concerns.

If you have questions about COVID-19 and the workplace or have any other questions related to human resources issues, contact East Coast Risk Management by calling 724-864-8745 or email us at We will be happy to help!

DisclaimerThe information provided on this website is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Use of and access to this website do not create an attorney-client relationship between East Coast Risk Management or our employment law attorney and the user or browser.