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What Do Food Workers Need to Know about Masks?

Food worker wearing a mask

We were primed with some level of vague familiarity with masks from childhood thanks to the countless hospital dramas we caught at a glance on TV. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic gained worldwide attention in early 2020, masks became a staple of American households and businesses.

If you’re a food worker, you may be required to wear a mask. Wearing a mask will help prevent the spread of illness in our most frequented essential businesses — restaurants and grocery stores.

Mask guidelines from the CDC

The CDC provides a great outline for how to properly use masks. If you’re required to wear a mask at your job, you should adhere to these guidelines to protect yourself and your customers.

Masks typically aren’t designed to filter out all germs and bacteria in the air. Instead, they stop those who are sick from spreading their germs and sometimes block large incoming particles. They are especially important in preventing people who have an illness but aren’t showing symptoms from getting others sick. If everyone wore masks, they would avoid spreading any contagions they possibly have to others and everyone would be protected.

The CDC also recommends maintaining six feet of distance from others where possible, even when wearing a mask, to keep yourself and others safe. If you know you are sick, you should also avoid public areas and stay home from work.

Different kinds of masks

The FDA offers information on a variety of face coverings people wear to stop the spread of pathogens. The ones most widely used and recommended by the CDC are cloth masks. Cloth masks generally don’t protect the wearer from germs in the air. Rather, they prevent people who are or may be sick from passing germs to others.

You can think of cloth masks as a barrier between a sick person and others around them. As a food worker, you should wear a cloth face covering when required, even if you aren’t sick. Make sure to wash it after each use!

Some people may choose to use surgical masks. The CDC advises against this in times when supplies may be limited for healthcare workers. Surgical masks are designed to block large particles from getting in and to stop contagions from getting out. They provide slightly better coverage than cloth masks, but are still generally loose-fitting. This type of mask isn’t meant to be reused. If you wear a surgical mask, throw it away after using it.

N95 respirators provide the most protection. However, the CDC recommends that these should only be worn by healthcare professionals. N95 respirators create a seal around the face that protects from large particles and prevents transmission of germs from an infected person to others.

Like surgical masks, N95 respirators aren’t intended to be reused. But if you don’t have access to enough N95 respirators to replace them every time you need one, the CDC has suggested reusing them a limited number of times. If you’re not sure about your N95 reuse policy, check with your manager.

The CDC also provides counsel on face shields, used in some establishments as a secondary barrier between employees and customers. These aren’t meant to be your primary protection from illness. Rather, you may choose to wear a face shield in addition to your mask whenever you’re in close contact with customers or coworkers. Face shields provide additional protection from larger germ particles. They should also be washed between each use.

A study conducted by researchers at Duke University evaluated how effective a variety of different face coverings are. In addition to the four types of masks we covered here, they studied eight other types, including bandanas and neck gaiters. They found cloth masks and surgical masks are the most effective mask types recommended for public use.

Use our poster about mask types in your establishment as a reminder of the differences between each kind of face covering. Click on a size below to download and print out the poster.

How to properly wear a mask to prevent the spread of illness

The CDC makes it clear that masks must be worn correctly in order to prevent germs from spreading. Follow these five steps to make sure your mask is protecting you and those around you:

  1. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before putting your mask on. Try to avoid touching the front of the mask as much as possible. Wash your hands if you touch the mask by accident, or after taking the mask off.
  2. Select a mask that allows you to breathe easily. If you have trouble breathing, you may need a new mask. Some individuals with underlying health conditions may not be able to wear a mask. Talk to your manager if this may be a concern for you.
  3. Fit the straps of the mask around your ears so the mask stays securely on your face. If the mask slips, it may not provide any protection.
  4. Make sure your mask fits snugly on your face. If it is too loose, you can twist the straps and double loop them over your ears to make it tighter.
  5. Your mask should completely cover your nose and mouth and fit over your chin. If it doesn’t, you likely need a bigger one.

Feel free to use this poster to remind you of how to properly wear a mask. Click on a size below to download and print out the poster.

Masks can go a long way to prevent the spread of illness. If you are required to wear one at work, make sure you know how to wear it to maximize its effectiveness.

If you are a food manager who needs to train your employees about masks, make sure you know the most up-to-date guidelines from the CDC and the FDA.

Looking for more food safety tips? Check out our food handler training or food manager certification.

Also, feel free to use our “Employees Must Wear Masks” poster if your establishment requires masks. Click on a size below to download and print out the poster.

— Calvin Clark

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