COVID-19: masks and face coverings

The Use of Face Masks and Shields at Work 

July 29, 2021

The Victorian government has lifted the latest lockdown - however some restrictions remain in place. Masks must still be worn both indoors and outdoors whenever leaving the home.

The only exception: face masks do not need to be worn indoors or outdoors if you are working alone unless another person enters that indoor or outdoor space.

The advice here is general. HSRs and workers in high-risk occupations are encouraged to contact their Union for more specific and detailed guidance regarding the PPE they need to be issued with.

This page is regularly reviewed and updated as further information becomes available and guidance is published.

Updates: 

September 27 on Face shields

On  the Department of Health and Human Services made the following announcement:

"A face covering means a face mask that covers the nose and mouth. Face shields on their own do not meet these requirements. There will be a one-week grace period in enforcement from 28 September."

The Employer’s Duty – s21 & s23

The Employer has a duty, so far as is reasonably practicable, to provide a safe working environment for employees and ensuring that the general public is not exposed to risks arising out of the conduct of their business. This means implementing and regularly reviewing the controls in place to minimise the spread of COVID-19. The state of knowledge regarding COVID-19 is being constantly updated, and consequently what constitutes best practice is also evolving. Employers need to reflect whether controls currently implemented adequately discharge their legal obligations under the Act in light of new information, including the use of masks or appropriate face coverings.

Duty to Consult – s35

When reviewing controls measures, and when making decisions about reviewing the need for and implementation of, new controls, the employer must consult with the elected HSRs and may also consult directly with employees.

This consultation around mask use needs to include particulars such as:

  • How does the mandatory wearing of masks outside the home affect the workplace? 
  • Are the controls currently in place working as intended?
  • Is the wearing of masks/face shields practicable at the workplace? Do they further reduce risk?
  • Who should wear them and when? Are there workers for whom the wearing of masks is not practicable (for example, the Premier suggested that this may be the case for call centre workers)
  • Does this control extend to non-employees who access the workspace?
  • What type of mask or face covering is most appropriate? (this includes consideration of disposable vs reusable masks; face shields)
  • From where will masks/face coverings be sourced?; and
  • What training, information and supervision need to be provided to employees?

Next Steps

HSRs or employees who are concerned with the lack of a position concerning masks should:

  1. Contact their Union. Larger employers (e.g. Government departments) should already be working on how to incorporate mask use across the sector; and/or 

  2. Commence consultation with the employer around the implementation of masks in the workplace (see consultation above) 

  3. In the event that this consultation is unsuccessful on one or more particulars, an HSR may: 

    • Seek a resolution under s73 of the OHS Act with a representative of the employer who is an appropriate level of seniority 
    • choose to issue a PIN under s60 of the Act or consider whether a direction to cease work is appropriate under s74 of the OHS Act. 
    • Seek the assistance of the Union under s58(f)

Q and As

1 - Is it compulsory to wear a face covering at work?

As of July 15, the answer is 'yes'. Check the advice for the wearing of Face coverings at work on the DHHS site. There is also new advice on the WorkSafe site: Managing coronavirus (COVID-19) risks: Face coverings in workplaces

In an employment situation, unless it is not practical OR if there are medical reasons why someone cannot wear a mask/face covering, then a mask/face covering must be worn (see the DHHS advice on Lawful excuses not to wear a face covering). In the past, the majority of Victoria's outbreaks came from settings where people are working closely together. This has changed with the recent outbreaks of the Delta variant, which originated in NSW. 

Note: even when masks are not mandated by the government, if an employer issues a direction that some or all staff need to wear masks or other forms of face coverings, then it is an issue of complying with company policy and following reasonable management direction. A failure to comply may result in disciplinary action. A failure to wear a face covering in other locations, such as shopping centres or on public transport, or even outdoors, can now result in a $200 or even higher fine. 

If individuals have concerns about the need or practicality of wearing a face mask/face covering for some or all of their duties, particularly if these concerns were not addressed as part of consultation, then this should be raised in the first instance with their HSR as soon as practicable. In the event of a dispute we recommend following the steps above.

2 - If my employer decides it is not necessary to wear a mask/face covering, do I have the right/duty to wear one anyway?

When the government mandates the wearing of masks/face coverings, then the employer and all workers must comply.

When this is no longer a directive, then generally: Yes you do, as it is still mandatory in several situations, and certainly recommended when indoors, or when it is not possible to physically distance. 

The wearing of face coverings protects both the individual and those in the immediate proximity, be they coworkers or members of the general public, by providing an additional physical barrier to coronavirus. 

If employees are uncomfortable with the employer’s position that a face mask/face covering is not necessary, this needs to be discussed as soon as possible, or raised as a dispute in line with the next steps outlined above and include whether masks will be made available for those employees who wish to use them.

Note: there is now indisputable evidence that the coronavirus is primarily spread by aerosols - not only droplets. Thus, physical distancing of 1.5 metres is inadequate. This is why everyone needs to be wearing a mask/face covering.

3 - Who needs to provide the appropriate face coverings in the workplace?

The duty to provide a safe working environment so far as is reasonably practicable rests with the employer; it is their primary duty to provide PPE. This also enables the employer to control factors such as the mask/face covering meeting Australian standards of quality and consistency. Where necessary, employers need to supply an adequate number of disposable, or several re-usable masks/face coverings. 

Part of assessing what is reasonably practicable is determined by the ability to source appropriate face coverings. In the event that these are unable to be sourced, in the short term it may be reasonably practicable for the employer to allow externally sourced masks (including home-made masks) as an alternative to no masks, but this is an unreliable way to control risk as the employer has ceded the ability to ensure that the masks are of the appropriate standard. Such controls should be phased out as soon as possible. (Note that while face coverings such as bandanas or scarves are accepted by the Victorian government as face coverings for the general public when outside the home, they are not suitable or appropriate for the workplace.)

In some employment settings, for example in health care, it may be necessary to wear both a mask and a face shield as this provides increased protection for the worker. 

The employer’s duty does not end with the obligation to provide face coverings, but includes providing instruction on how to properly put on and take off the face covering, ensuring a proper fit so that it is working as intended, and supervising its use. Employers should also ensure masks are properly laundered or disposed of as appropriate. See DHHS advice on Face Masks 

NOTE: if masks become damp or wet, they should not continue to be worn. Given that in Victoria masks/face coverings now need to be worn when on the way to work and from work, it is likely that workers using masks will need to have more than one mask, especially if the mask is a disposable one. It may be most practicable for workers to have their own masks for the journey to and from work, and for the employer to provide the masks necessary for use in the workplace. 

4 - Can a business deny entry to people not wearing face coverings?

Yes - but only those when/where the government has made mask-wearing mandatory - at the moment, it is a government directive that masks be worn indoors and outdoors, so businesses can certainly deny entry to anyone who is not wearing a mask. 

Employers whose employees deal with members of the general public in these workplaces need to ensure that controls are in place, such as signage regarding the masks policy or extra security, in the event that a member of the public wishes to dispute the requirement to wear a mask. 

When masks are not mandatory:

An employer who cannot restrict access to the general public must have other controls in place in recognition of the fact that as a result of their decision not to, or inability to, mandate face masks, they have increased the risk of exposure to their employees.  However these should be very rare situations. 

If the employer does make the decision that everyone entering the workplace (eg clients, customers, and so on) must wear a mask, then it is up to the employer to enforce it. The enforcement of mask wearing may in itself present an unacceptable risk to health and safety for public-facing workers, and it should not be up to them to police it.  A number of large food retailers have now made it mandatory for their customers to wear masks prior to entering the stores - they have a staff member at the entrance checking and handing out masks for those not wearing them. 

5 - What about the risks I face getting to and from work?

Wearing masks on public transport and in commercial passenger vehicles is mandatory. The same applies to people waiting in queues, on platforms and so on. The masks should not be removed once someone alights from a bus, tram, train or hire car. 

Quality of masks

A coalition of workplace health and safety related organisations across Australia and New Zealand, and the ACTU has called for the urgent establishment of a register for approved respirators (aka face masks). The group describes the presence of non-compliant, fake and faulty disposable masks as an immediate threat to the health and safety of workers.

The current situation with 'fake' masks being used even in the health care sector has highlighted that the regulation of PPE is grossly inadequate to ensure that the masks that Australian workers are using are up to the task.

Respirators new guide due to many fakes being sold:  Joint media release [pdf]. Guide to Buying P2, or Equivalent, Respirators for use in the Australian & New Zealand Work Environment [pdf]

Other resource: