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OSHA Clarifies COVID-19 Respiratory Protection Regarding Religious Employees' Facial Hair

In a December 16, 2021 Letter of Interpretation, OSHA clarified that loose-fitting powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) are a permissible alternative to N95 respirators where respiratory protection is required to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. Further, the agency noted that the Respiratory Protection Standard does not require the employer to offer alternative respirators to all of its employees in cases where a limited number request an accommodation due to a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.

The question to OSHA arose in the context of OSHA’s COVID-19 Healthcare Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), 29 CFR 1910.502, which requires employers to provide respirators in certain circumstances. Both the COVID-19 Healthcare ETS and the Respiratory Protection Standard permit employers to provide various types of NIOSH-certified respirators, including loose-fitting PAPRs.

Employers are subject to penalties from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for a failure to make reasonable accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs. Additionally, the EEOC can hold employers liable for a lack of reasonable accommodation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To view OSHA's Letter of Interpretation, click here.

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