Face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE)

Last updated: 13 Jan 2021

Face masks and PPE should only be needed if it is not possible to control the risk of transmission through other means. In indoor workplaces, priority should be given to maintaining physical distancing and effective ventilation.

For example, face masks and respiratory protective equipment should only be needed where the nature of the task dictates that two metres’ separation cannot be maintained, there are no alternative ways of carrying out the task while maintaining two metres’ separation, and/or ventilation in the area is poor.

In offices, many corridors and communal areas are likely to be poorly ventilated and physical distancing will be difficult. Prospect recommends that, in these areas, staff should wear face masks. This will reduce the onward spread of the virus from a-symptomatic carriers.

Face masks and face coverings

Face coverings tend to be made from cloth and may or may not be reusable. They are largely intended to protect others, not the wearer, against the spread of infection. Face coverings are not classed as PPE for the purposes of the PPE Regulations. They are not manufactured to a set standard and will therefore not offer a consistent level of protection.

On the other hand, face masks, also known as surgical or medical masks, are manufactured to a standard and, if they are droplet resistant, will offer the wearer a degree of protection, while also protecting others.

In all countries of the UK, wearing a face covering is mandatory on public transport and in most indoor places that are open to the public, like shops and leisure facilities. In Wales, it is also mandatory to wear a face covering in public areas of a building that is otherwise closed to the public – for example, the reception area of an office.

There are exceptions to this rule for people with impairments or for those who will experience distress when putting one on; and in other limited circumstances.

The World Health Organisation recommends that, as a minimum, face coverings should have three layers:

  • an inner layer of absorbent material, such as cotton
  • a middle layer of non-woven material, such as polypropylene, which can be an insert
  • an outer layer of non-absorbent material, such as polyester or polyester blend

What kind of masks should be worn?

In circumstances where risk is not sufficiently controlled via other methods, fluid resistant surgical facemasks are preferable to cloth face coverings. These surgical masks are also known as type IR or type IIR facemasks, which indicates they are fluid resistant and have been certified to European standard EN 14683:2005.

Respiratory protective equipment that provides a higher level of protection, such as disposable half mask respirators classed as either FFP2 or FFP3, are preferable in situations where people work in close proximity, especially given the more transmissible strains of the virus. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has general advice on FFP2 and 3 facemasks.

If the employer introduces masks, they must also introduce other control measures outlined elsewhere in this guidance.

It is possible that there will be shortages of PPE. Reps should seek the agreement of their employer that if PPE is not available for tasks that require it, the task should not be carried out until the PPE has been secured.

It is important that people using PPE should be trained in its use, including how to put it on and take it off safely. FFP3 facemasks and other tight-fitting respirators rely on having a good seal with the wearer’s face, otherwise they could leak air. A face-fit test should therefore be carried out to ensure the mask can protect the wearer. See the HSE’s guidance on face-fit testing.

The PPE must also be compatible with any other PPE that people are wearing and must be compatible and comfortable for people who use glasses. Some types of surgical facemask come with anti-fog features that allow them to be worn with eyewear.