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This guide explains why face coverings are used, the difference between face coverings and masks, what the recommended standards are and what union reps can do to support members.

Why wear face coverings?

A face covering is an item which covers the nose and mouth. These can be reusable or single-use and are produced in a range of styles and materials.

The nose and mouth are two of the primary sources of Covid-19 transmission between individuals, and face coverings allow the wearer to breathe while creating a buffer to reduce the distance ejected viral droplets can travel. Face coverings are designed primarily to protect those around us, and studies show they can also protect the wearer.

Face coverings are a legal requirement to wear while travelling on public transport and in most indoor public spaces. You can find details of where they are required in England and Wales via the website.

Wearing face coverings is also mandatory for some workers – for example in shops, bars and restaurants - although there are exemptions, for example where staff are behind a perspex screen. The regulations differ in Scotland, where face coverings are also mandatory in specific other work settings, for example, communal areas in office buildings.

Enforcement of the use of face covering is the responsibility of the police, and people can receive fines for non-compliance.
It is important to remember that, while face coverings are one measure used to help reduce the spread of coronavirus, it is not a replacement for other measures. For example, at least 2-metre distancing, regular hand-washing, effective ventilation systems and self-isolation when necessary are still considered as more effective control measures.

Face coverings or masks?

Face coverings and surgical masks are not classified as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Surgical face masks are primarily intended to protect patients, and as such are classed as medical devices. These tend to be one-size-fits-all and are designed to limit contact of large droplets and bodily fluid. Surgical face masks should meet a specific standard, and be aware that there are very many distributed of varying quality.

There are certain workplaces where respirator masks are used, for example, industrial settings and those in specific healthcare settings.

From left to right: face covering, surgical mask, FFP3. Source: 3M,

The FFP3 (filtering facepiece respirator level 3) is considered to be the most effective, widely available face mask. Tests show these masks reduce the exposure by up to six times compared to a surgical mask. To be effective, these types of masks must be fitted appropriately. Guidance on face fitting is available from the HSE.

PPE with an FFP3 mask is defined by the NHS as ‘Level 2 PPE’ and is required for all aerosol-generating procedures irrespective of whether the patient is suspected of having Covid-19 or not. The government has produced specific advice for PPE use in health and social care.
Supply of these types of masks should be prioritised for those in occupations where it is required.

There have been reports of workers being issued with out of date masks, so union reps should check these upon issue, and look out for a certification mark, as this indicates it has met relevant EU health and safety standards. It is also vital that masks are issued to workers for personal use, and not shared.

For more information about the differences between surgical face masks, PPE face masks, and face coverings you can visit the MHRA’s (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) regulatory status of equipment being used to help prevent coronavirus (COVID-19).

In most workplaces, PPE-grade masks are not necessary. However, where face coverings are advised, they should be to a certain standard (see ‘expected standard’ below).

Can I wear a face covering at work?

Many people are choosing to wear a face covering at work, whether or not one is required. However, there have also been reports of people being told not wear one to by bosses. Unless a risk assessment produces reasons why staff should not wear a face covering, or there are reasonable practicalities which could prevent them from carrying out their role, people should be given a choice to do so.

In August 2020, the government U-turned to allow for schools to require staff to wear a face covering if they felt it necessary. More and more employers are asking workers to use face coverings.


Mandatory face coverings at work

Covering the cost

If your employer requires you to wear face coverings at work, these should be provided to you for free. Workers should be given adequate supply, and these should also be made available for any commute to and from the workplace. This is not a legal requirement, but it is best practise and what unions should be negotiating. Unions estimate that the cost of disposable face coverings to each worker is around £25 per month – a significant spend, especially considering many of those expected to wear one are on lower wages.


Expected standard

The government’s very advice says face coverings should “ideally include at least two layers of fabric”. However, it does not explain why, or what type of fabric should be used. The most up to date World Health Organisation Standards recommends a face covering has three layers: 

  • inner layer to the mouth to be hydrophilic material (such as cotton);  
  • middle layer to act as a filter and be made of polypropylene fabric; and 
  • outer layer to be made of a hydrophobic material such as polyester or polycotton, which will repel moisture and droplets

Where face coverings are required at work, union reps should refer to the above as the minimum specification that employers should provide.



Where workers are required to use face coverings for long periods, their working hours should reflect the discomfort and fatigue issues associated with this. Employers should factor in breaks to allow workers the option of time away from the workplace without a face covering.


Disposing of face coverings

If a face covering becomes damaged, dirty, damp or otherwise uncomfortable, it should be disposed of and replaced. Employers should provide adequate facilities for face coverings and/or masks to be disposed of safely.
Masks not designed for re-use, for example disposable surgical face masks, should be replaced after use.

Reusable cloth face coverings should be washed after each use.



Some people are exempt from the wearing of face coverings, including:

  • People who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability.
  • People speaking to or assisting someone who relies on lip-reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate

Government advice states that nobody should be made to obtain a medical note as evidence for their exemption. Employers should approach this based on trust, and not force anyone with an exemption to wear a face covering. Union reps will wish to seek assurances from management that no member is penalised or otherwise discriminated against based on exemption.


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