Contrary to previous instructions, the CDC has recently changed its recommendation for the use of DIY cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing measures may be difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.  This change was based on the findings that many people are contracting COVID-19 from others who are asymptomatic. To clarify, the CDC is not recommending the use of surgical masks or N95 respirators as those must be reserved for workers on the frontlines of this pandemic. 

While the cloth face coverings are not considered respirators as necessitated by OSHA for higher risk work environments; depending on the fabric and filtering material used to make them, they can be helpful in flattening the curve of COVID-19.  Although the cloth masks do not fit as snugly to the face or filter very small particulates they are still seen as useful in stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus when added to the current practices of handwashing, social distancing, and other mitigation measures.  In areas where cloth face masks were used, even by individuals who were deemed healthy, the spread of COVID-19 saw a significant drop in numbers. 

This new recommendation by the CDC opens up the following questions for work environments that do not require the use of surgical masks or respirators: 

Are these cloth face masks considered personal protective equipment (PPE) pursuant to OSHA regulations?  


DIY, face masks made from fabric and cloth are not yet considered PPE. Even though they are not technically PPE by OSHA standards, what DIY masks can do is limit the spread of infectious droplets in the air by containing coughs and sneezes.  Think of the phrase “my mask protects you, your mask protects me”. Since DIY masks can protect the wearer and others, it is important that these masks are worn when performing activities in social settings. This can prevent the further spread of the virus throughout the community.

If cloth masks are required by employers in work environments that do not need to wear surgical masks or respirators, are they considered a PPE item? 

Even though cloth masks are not considered PPE, if an employer requires that their employees utilize fabric masks while at the workplace, then it would be in the best interest of the employer to treat them as a PPE item.  In doing so, the employer would be wise to follow the OSHA guidelines as laid out for providing and utilizing PPE equipment in the work setting. These outlines include performing a hazard assessment; investigating other alternative options to protect employees; providing appropriate PPE equipment for employees; training employees in the use and care of PPE equipment; and preparing a plan that is periodically reviewed and includes employee-specific requirements.  

 If the use of fabric face masks is a voluntary discretionary measure for employees, then there is no action needed on the part of the employer.

Who is required to pay for cloth face masks worn in workplaces where surgical masks and respirators are not required?

The PPE standard states that employers cannot require employees to provide their own PPE equipment. If the employer provides cloth face masks to their employees, it would be in the employer’s interest to do so under the definition of PPE equipment in the workplace.  Under those terms, and following OSHA guidelines for PPE equipment, the employer would need to cover the cost of the masks.

If the masks are voluntarily worn by employees, then the employer would not be responsible for providing or paying for them.


The CDC has made it clear that they are not recommending the use of surgical masks or respirators in workplaces where there is not a necessity for them.  The latest recommendation for cloth face masks does not replace any prior CDC recommendations but is considered an addition to the current practices of handwashing, and social distancing.  Therefore, cloth face masks, whether provided by the employer or voluntarily utilized, should be part of an overall safety plan for the workplace. Going forward, all businesses should continue to refer to the CDC for updates on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 and incorporate the CDC recommendations accordingly.

This article is not legal advice and should not be considered or used as such.  Please contact an attorney for legal advice on the use of face masks, on how to implement a safety plan or any other legal issue related to COVID-19, OSHA, and other legal matters.