Can Face Masks Save Food Retail Workers Lives?

The information about the effectiveness of face masks has been confusing since the pandemic began.
The information about the effectiveness of face masks has been confusing since the pandemic began.

April 19, 2020 - Food retail workers are at the front-line of the coronavirus pandemic with many workers coming into contact with hundreds of customers every day. In the US alone, at least 41 grocery store workers have died of coronavirus with many thousands more sick or exposed to the disease.

Since the start of the pandemic, advice about the effectiveness of face masks has been confusing. Many governments said that masks weren’t effective but then insisted they were essential for health care workers. As the pandemic progresses, the advice is slowly changing and members of the public are now being encouraged by governments to wear face masks in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

Given the amount of people that food retail workers are exposed to in any given day, face masks are a necessary piece of protective personal equipment (PPE) that may help to save their lives. Supermarket chains and grocery chains are now starting to enforce that their workers wear face masks whilst at work, with US giant Walmart leading the way with mandatory face coverings now required for all employees.

How Face Masks Work

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted person-to-person via droplets released when an infected person speaks, breathes, coughs or sneezes. Infected people may be presymptomatic (not yet displaying symptoms) or asymptomatic (not experiencing any symptoms) and still transmit the virus. Face masks are an effective form of protection against these droplets. They protect the wearer from inhaling droplets and also prevent the wearer from transmitting the virus.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released guidelines that all food workers should wear a face mask or some sort of face covering when working. Other government administrations around the world are providing similar advice or instructions.

Types of Face Masks

The most effective face mask in protecting the wearer against the coronavirus is an N95 mask. Due to shortages of these masks, governments are requesting that they are only used by health and community workers with a high level of exposure to the coronavirus.

Disposable surgical style masks are recommended for food workers, however some businesses may experience problems procuring these due to increased demand from the health and community sector. If disposable masks cannot be obtained, food safety experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed recently that food businesses may use cloth masks provided that they are laundered at 60°C or above and dried hygienically.

Using Face Masks Safely

Face masks are only effective if used correctly. If food workers touch the mask with contaminated hands they can still contract the disease, and if masks aren’t changed frequently enough food workers are still at risk.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided the following guidance around the use of face masks:

  • Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • Cover mouth and nose with mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
  • Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks.
  • To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

With the high numbers of food retail workers falling ill with the coronavirus, the use of face masks seems like a small but important step in helping to protect their health and safety, and ultimately, their lives.