Question: We know that all employees in Washington must wear a cloth face covering except when working alone in an office, vehicle, or at a job site. What does it mean to be “working alone”? As long as employees stay at least six feet apart from each other, does that mean they’re “working alone” and therefore don’t have to wear cloth face coverings at work?
Answer: The Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I)’s chart specifies the type of face coverings, masks, or respirators that are required in different work environments, based on the risk of transmitting COVID-19 (coronavirus). In situations with negligible or low transmission risk, an employee doesn’t have to wear a cloth face covering if they’re working alone. L&I has issued Common Questions Regarding Worker Face Covering and Mask Requirements, which explains that an employee is working alone “when they’re isolated from interaction with other people and have little or no expectation of in-person interruption” (emphasis added). L&I provides four examples of what that could look like: (1) a lone worker inside an enclosed cab of mobile equipment or a vehicle; (2) a person by themselves inside an office with four walls and a door; (3) A lone worker inside a cubicle with four walls (one with an opening for an entryway) that are high enough to block the breathing zone of anyone walking by and whose work activity doesn’t require anyone to enter the cubicle; and (4) A worker by themself outside in an agricultural field, the woods, or other open area with no anticipated contact with others.
Surprisingly, Vigilant’s safety professionals have been advised by an L&I technical manager that working alone includes situations where employees are at least six feet from others, so face coverings aren’t required unless workers come within that six-foot zone. This informal advice is a fairly aggressive interpretation of the rules and isn’t binding on the agency in the event of a safety complaint resulting in a workplace investigation. Even if you can ensure workers are always at least six feet apart, you should evaluate whether to require cloth face coverings anyway. From a practical standpoint, if you have two workers talking together on opposite sides of a 10’ x 10’ room for more than 15 minutes, it may be difficult to take the position they were “working alone” if you receive a safety complaint.
In situations where it’s not entirely clear if an employee is working alone, consider whether they’re truly isolated and whether there’s a likelihood of in-person interruption, especially situations where a coworker could approach the employee without the employee being aware. As always, if you have questions about L&I’s requirements for masks or cloth face coverings in specific situations, consult your Vigilant safety professional.