Q: In past weeks, it’s just been four or five us in the office. Two of us wear masks when we’re around each other or any of our occasional drop-in visitors. The others refuse to wear masks or stay 6 feet away from the rest of us.
One is my boss. I love my job and the only time I asked him a general question about masks, he insisted he follows all CDC guidelines. When I asked if we would all begin wearing masks, he brandished old information from OSHA that says mask-wearing wasn’t essential.
I don’t want to risk a fight, but next week our office will be back to full staffing, minus anyone who’s been let go. I’m worried about my health. What can I do that won’t get me on my boss’s bad side?
A: Your boss does not wear a mask because he doesn’t want to or doesn’t feel it’s necessary. That means you need to make him want to or convince him it’s necessary.
Start by understanding your boss’s position, which, like many who ignore the CDC’s current guidelines, relies on old information. When we knew little about COVID-19 when the pandemic began, public health officials didn’t universally endorse mask-wearing, in part because they wanted to ensure medical providers had sufficient access to personal protective equipment. That and other factors led mask-wearing to become a politicized, divisive issue.
We now know more concerning how effective masks are against COVID-19 spreading from asymptomatic individuals to those who then suffer gravely. According to multiple researchers cited in a July 2020 article in NBCnews.com, “nearly all droplets generated by speaking and talking were blocked when the mouth was covered by a damp washcloth. In another experiment, scientists examined over 100 individuals with a respiratory infection” and discovered that “masks reduced the detection of respiratory viruses in both droplets and aerosols.”
Attorney Eric Brown notes that while “the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been slow to issue regulatory guidance that addresses this area, OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires that employers furnish to each worker ‘employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.’ It is unlikely, however,” says Brown, “that a failure to wear a mask will violate this general policy other than in ‘high-risk’ place of employment.”
Brown adds that as an employee you “have other legal avenues you can pursue. If you fit a high-risk category because of a co-morbidity associated with COVID, you might request ‘reasonable accommodation’ to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID. Mask-wearing by fellow employees may be a ’reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
You can also tell your boss the truth, which is you worry about your health. Because he feels comfortable he follows CDC guidelines, you can let him know the Center for Disease Control now encourages everyone to wear a face covering when near others to prevent speaking COVID-19. You can help him realize his lack of a face mask might worry customers and other employees who remain silent.
If you decide to take a greater risk, you can remind him his actions might give him liability for what results from the lack of mask-wearing in your work environment, whether it leads to an infection that shutters your office or an illness or death. As I referenced in my Aug. 11 column, multiple Wall Street Journal articles detail lawsuits filed by both employees and their families alleging employers failed to protect employees from COVID-19.
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