Canada’s Public Health Experts Issue New Guidance on Non-Medical Face Masks

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On May 20, 2020, Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, announced a new recommendation that Canadians wear non-medical face masks when in public and physical distancing may not be possible. Dr. Tam emphasized that wearing a non-medical face mask should be treated as supplemental to – and not a replacement for – other precautionary measures, including remaining two metres apart from others and handwashing.

The Government of Canada’s Special Advisory Committee on COVID-19,[1] expressly states that non-medical masks or cloth face coverings are not considered personal protective equipment and indicates that while the supply of medical masks should be reserved for healthcare settings, there may be some non-healthcare work settings where medical masks are more appropriate than non-medical masks. This can include settings where services are to be provided to a client who is unable to wear a non-medical mask or face covering when measures such as two-metre physical distance or plexiglass/transparent barriers are not possible or available. Importantly, however, employers considering these recommendations must also aim to strike a balance with the recommendations of applicable provincial and local public health authorities. For example, some provincial public health authorities recommend that medical masks be exclusively reserved for use by health care workers and first responders.

In addition to the myriad of considerations for employers to consider as they plan for re-openings and the return of employees to physical workplaces, when creating workplace policies related to the use of masks at work, employers should take into account the specific requirements of their workforce. Consults with their Occupational Health and Safety team and local public health authority are also recommended. In doing so, employers should consider whether there are any occupational risks to implementing a face covering policy, including any potential psychological impacts or physical safety risks.

This update is part of our continuing efforts to keep employers informed about COVID-19. Check our COVID-19 hub and our McCarthy Tétrault Employer Advisor blog for further updates. If you are an employer and have any questions about the new guidance on non-medical face masks or any other COVID-19 workplace matter, please contact any member of our National Labour & Employment Group.

[1] Special Advisory Committee on COVID-19, “Use of non-medical cloth masks or face coverings in community settings”, Pan-Canadian Public Health Network (May 20, 2020).

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