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Big differences in employers' workplace mask policies

Major variations in workplace practices mean some employees supply their own masks, while others get them on the job.

Kasvomaskein suojautuneita HSL:n lipuntarkastajia raitiovaunupysäkillä Lasipalatsin edessä Helsingissä 27. toukokuuta.
A national mask recommendation would affect public spaces and mass transit. Image: Emmi Korhonen / Lehtikuva

New guidelines in the works by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, THL, will likely require mask use in public spaces and public transportation to prevent a resurgence of Covid-19.

However employers are waiting to see how the imminent recommendations will affect their everyday operations.

Yle noticed major differences in firms' workplace mask policies, with employees supplying their own masks in some instances, while in other cases, firms moved early on to mandate mask use.

Five employers were asked how possible new mask recommendations might affect them and whether or not they already had mask use policies in place. The respondents were state railway VR, construction insulation firm Paroc, grocery duopolists S-Group and Kesko and the city of Helsinki.

VR prepped for masks, awaiting guidelines

Mask use by VR employees is currently voluntary and workers who choose to use them at work must foot the cost themselves.

"Some are using them but the vast majority are not," VR service director Piia Tyynilä said.

VR said that personnel will all use masks if the THL issues a strong mandate for their use on public transportation. In that case, VR will pay for the masks employees use.

Tyynilä said that VR has already acquired masks for staff in advance, should a recommendation be handed down. Trains already have masks that can be used in suspected cases of infection and passengers can also purchase them, she added.

The rail firm said that it has also had initial discussions about whether or not staff should use masks on their commutes to and from work.

"At the moment the idea is that we will specifically pay for masks used during work. The journey between home and work is not directly part of the job, so masks will not be provided for that," Tyynilä declared.

Paroc's mask mandate in force since April

Insulation supplier Paroc said that masks in the workplace have been mandatory since mid-April. It has been applied in factory settings and offices in situations where the recommended two-metre safety distance is not possible. For example, masks are compulsory in meeting rooms.

Paroc CEO Anders Dahlblom said that in the final analysis, masks are a safety issue. “We want every employee to be able to go to work and return home safely,” he noted.

Dahlblom said that employees use masks in the workplace everyday.

"But it doesn't mean that masks are worn eight hours a day. Most people wear a mask for one or two hours a day when they are performing duties where they cannot maintain a two-metre distance from others," he explained.

He said that because the company operates internationally, it was easier to adopt the safety measure. It experienced the first wave of the coronavirus infection in Asia in January and February and was therefore able to prepare for safety measures well before Europe was hit.

However he said it was challenging to introduce masks in Finland because there was no recommendation to use them. This meant that employers had to justify their use to employees, since the government had not recommended them.

"There are always individuals who don’t want to use them or who want to discuss why they should be used since there is no nationwide guideline. But we have explained why we are doing this. It all begins with safety," Dahlblom added.

Story continues after photo

Kertakäyttömaski henkilön kasvoilla.
S-Group and Kesko workers use masks when distancing is not possible extended close contact with others is required. Image: Emmi Korhonen / Lehtikuva

S-Group reliant on plexiglass shields and visors

Grocery store giant S-Group has so far been relying primarily on plexiglass shields and visors to protect workers from infection. Employees only use masks in situations where it is not possible to use the other forms of protection, according to risk management unit head Mikko Koskinen.

Koskinen said such circumstances are usually cases where employees end up in very close proximity to customers’ faces. For example, hairdressers use masks when working with clients.

Employees who are not in customer-facing roles, for example office workers do not use masks in the workplace. However, Koskinen said they may eventually have to use them on work-related trips such as on places or when visiting countries when mask use is common or mandatory.

According to Koskinen, S-Group drew up its safety plans in the early stages of the epidemic. "The situation is good in stores, there have been no cases of infection," he added.

The THL’s recommendation is also expected to cover public transportation. However S-Group said that it currently has no separate guidelines for employees covering their work commute. The firm said one option would be for workers to avoid public transportation during rush hours.

Kesko to pay for masks if they are recommended

Meanwhile, Finland’s other grocery market leader Kesko also said that employees only use masks as an additional form of protection in certain situations. Other safety precautions such as distancing and enhanced sanitation are prioritised over masks.

Kesko wellness director Katriina Ahtee said that masks will be used when they are deemed beneficial on the basis of a risk assessment. In such cases, the employer will sponsor any safety equipment required, she added.

"When the employer assesses that their use is beneficial then it pays for them."

She noted that masks could be useful in situations where people come into contact with each other for long periods and where distancing is not possible. She pointed out that workers positions at self-service stations always use protective visors or masks.

She said that current safety practices have proven to be effective, since no work-based infections have been reported.

Ahtee said that she could not yet say how a possible national mask recommendation would affect Kesko. She noted that the firm will assess the situation once it has been able to read the full policy.

She stressed that Kesko employees who want to use a mask for additional protection on their work commutes can do so, if they feel they will not be able to maintain an adequate distance from others.

Helsinki providing masks to many workers

The City of Helsinki said that it has been offering masks to all employees working in roles that require them. These include social and health care service workers to care for coronavirus patients or who interact with customers who may have been exposed to infection. Additionally, workers who shuttle between different units or departments also wear masks.

People working in customer service roles such as in public youth work use masks if their duties require them to come into close contact with others, for example in mediation or first aid work. Library workers who deliver material to the elderly in their homes or hospitals or to hospital patients all wear masks.

"Masks are one way of offering protection. It is as important as other safety measures such as distancing and hand hygiene. There are other protection measures in use at customer service points, such as plexiglass shields," Helsinki City communications director Liisa Kivelä said.

She added that the city will re-evaluate which duties require masks to be used when the THL issues its guidelines.

Helsinki said that it currently doesn’t have any plans to fund the purchase of masks for employees who use mass transit to get to and from work.

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