Safety Swap: Non-medical masks in the workplace during COVID-19

Safety Swap: Non-medical masks in the workplace during COVID-19

​​​​​If you cannot maintain six feet or two metres of physical distance from people outside of your household, Manitoba Health and Safety Swap the Government of Canada recommend wearing a non-medical mask to help interrupt the transmission of COVID-19. But what does that mean for your workplace and what role can your committee play?

This Safety Swap can be used to lead a discussion about the use of non-medical masks.

Information to kick start your safety and health committee meetings!

1. What is the difference between non-medical masks, medical masks and respirators?

Respirators (N95 masks) must be kept for health care workers who are working directly with COVID-19 patients, or for workers in other industries where respirators are used regularly. An N95 requires fit-testing by a trained individual to be effective.

A medical mask, such as a surgical or procedure mask, offers a greater level of protection than a non-medical mask. These must also be kept for health care workers and those working in high-risk workplaces.

Non-medical masks can be made of fabric, and may be disposable or re-useable. They should cover your nose, mouth and chin. When you wear a non-medical mask, it does not protect you, but because it reduces the chance that your respiratory droplets will come into contact with other people or land on surfaces, it may help to protect people around you. Non-medical masks are not regulated because they have not been tested to recognized standards, and the materials are not the same as used in surgical masks or respirators.

For more information:

2. How do you wear a non-medical mask properly?

It is important to wear and care for your non-medical mask properly.

You should wash or sanitize your hands before and after putting on or removing a non-medical mask. Use the ties or elastics around the ears to put on or remove the mask (do not touch the front or inside of the mask). Do not touch your face while wearing a mask, and change your mask when it is wet or dirty. Re-usable masks that are dirty should be placed in a plastic bag until they can be washed in hot water, while disposable non-medical masks must be put into an appropriate garbage receptacle.

Non-medical masks do not replace the need to frequently wash and sanitize your hands, and to physical distance, but in situations where physical distancing is hard to maintain, non-medical masks may offer additional protection for others.

It's important for committee members to set a good example for proper non-medical mask use. Our Ask the Safety Expert article on masks has further information you can use, while the Government of Canada has some great resources we encourage you to review, including:

3. Some of our co-workers find non-medical masks very uncomfortable. What advice can we give them?

To help increase comfort, ensure non-medical masks allow for easy breathing, fit securely to the head with ties or ear loops, are made from two layers of tightly woven fabric, such as cotton or linen, and are large enough to completely and comfortably cover the nose, mouth and chin without gaping. Your workplace may want to consider incorporating mask-free times, as long as physical distance can be maintained, while workers are getting used to wearing a mask or when working in warmer environments. Ear protectors may help those with sore ears. A metal piece can also be sewn into the top of a mask to help ensure the mask forms to the nose.  

For more information:

4. Can my workplace make non-medical masks mandatory? If so, is our committee responsible for enforcing this?

The need to wear non-medical masks in workplaces can depend on whether physical distancing from co-workers and clients is easy to maintain or not. A risk assessment can help you determine this. For example, your workplace may require workers to wear non-medical masks when moving between work areas, because physical distancing is hard to maintain. Non-medical mask requirements may also depend on the pandemic response level in your location. Learn more about the #RestartMB Pandemic Response System.

If your workplace has made non-medical masks mandatory, your employer should recognize that some workers might have barriers to accessing masks, and that not everyone can wear a mask, including some workers with disabilities or medical conditions.

Committee members (as well as workplace leadership) play an important role in educating and creating a culture of acceptance for non-medical masks. Leading by example will help create buy-in. You should also help educate co-workers on the importance of not stigmatizing or bullying anyone who may not be able to wear a non-medical mask. Remember that physical distancing is still one of the most fundamental practices for interrupting the transmission of COVID-19. 

If your workplace implements a mandatory non-medical mask protocol, it is not the responsibility of your committee to enforce it. The employer is ultimately responsible for enforcing any safety rules with respect to mandatory non-medical mask use.

5. How should we address a co-worker who refuses to wear a mask?

If non-medical mask use is mandatory in your workplace, and a co-worker refuses to wear one, talk to them to understand the root cause of the refusal. Is there a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask? Do they believe masks are ineffective? Do they feel that the mask restricts their air flow? Do they have barriers to accessing masks? Are they unable to wear one for other reasons? Understanding the root cause can help lead to a resolution. These conversations may also be an opportunity to explain the rationale for wearing non-medical masks, and create greater awareness about mask use and preventing COVID-19. See our Ask the Safet​y Expert article for more information on talking to workers who aren't following prevention measures.

6. Some workers say they will not wear a non-medical mask because our workplace is not providing them. Does our workplace need to provide us with masks?

At this time, some employers are providing non-medical masks, while others are asking employees to supply their own. Either way, if your employer requires the use of non-medical masks, they should provide training on proper use, care, storage and cleaning practices. Employers could also provide information on styles of non-medical masks employees could use.

Top Tips

  1. Conduct a risk assessment to determine your workplace risk in relation to non-medical mask use.
  2. Stay up-to-date on the current pandemic response level, which includes guidelines for non-medical mask use in Manitoba. The current response levels can be found here. Further information on the #RestartMB Pandemic Response System can be found here.
  3. A non-medical mask should be made of at least two layers of fabric, such as cotton or linen. It should cover your nose, mouth and chin.
  4. Avoid touching your face when wearing a non-medical mask. Avoid pulling the mask under your nose or chin when the mask is not being used.
  5. Wash or sanitize your hands before and after putting on and removing a non-medical mask.

Share your ideas!

Share your ideas! If you would like to share your best practices with other safety and health committee leaders, we'd like to hear from you. Your idea might be featured in an upcoming issue of Safety Swap! Email us: for more information.

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