Nfld. & Labrador

Massage therapists divided on return-to-work rules

The College of Massage Therapists has released mandatory requirements and a three-phase plan for massage therapists to follow upon reopening.

3-phase plan includes PPE, limited on-skin contact

Massage therapists are in close contact with clients, meaning returning to work during the pandemic could be high-risk. (Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

Containing the coronavirus heavily depends on people keeping their distance. For massage therapists in the province, who rely on close contact with people, it means returning to work during the pandemic could be high-risk.

That's why the College of Massage Therapists of Newfoundland and Labrador has released strict and mandatory requirements for massage therapists to follow upon reopening. The college issued guidelines last week, and then updated them Wednesday.

Their three-phase plan outlines the rules therapists must follow and the personal protective equipment that both therapists and clients must wear.

In a notice sent to registered massage therapists, the college said if therapists do not comply with the guidelines they could be suspended or reported to the Department of Health. 

"As a college we do understand that our guidelines are pretty stringent, they're pretty strong, but we do take public safety very seriously," said Jessica Moore, chair of the College of Massage Therapists of Newfoundland and Labrador.

No hand-to-skin contact

Private health clinics, like massage therapy clinics, can open when the province reaches Alert Level 3, which would be June 8 at the earliest.

When that happens, therapists will be required to wear a gown or clinic coat and a medical mask, and they must change their masks and gowns after every client. 

Goggles or a face shield are strongly recommended, as are gloves.

Massage therapy clients must also wear a non-medical mask before they enter a clinic, and must keep it on during treatment. 

Massage therapist Sara Sexton says she can't do her treatments wearing gloves. She's also worried because she hasn't been trained to safely put on and take off PPE. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Under the rules, therapists can have skin-to-skin contact with clients only while using their elbow or forearm during treatment.

In an update sent to therapists this week, the college said handwashing the elbow is mandatory if treating with skin-to-skin contact, and clients may refuse.

The college urges therapists to schedule 30 minutes between appointments for enhanced cleaning. They said vulnerable groups with pre-existing conditions and people over 60 should forgo treatment. 

Community divided

Massage therapists are divided over the guidelines. Massage therapist Sara Sexton said the guidelines are necessary, but they'll be difficult to follow. 

"The future of massage therapy looks very uncertain to me," said Sexton, a former chair of the college.

"I can't treat with gloves," said Sexton. "I don't feel you can feel what you need to feel."

The College of Massage Therapists of Newfoundland and Labrador has released strict and mandatory requirements and a three-phase plan for massage therapists to follow upon reopening. (Robert Short/CBC)

The college has offered to supply therapists with up to 50 masks, but Sexton is still also worried about that too.

"I haven't been given any training on how to put on all this garb and then take it off safely," she said.

Read revised guidelines from the College of Massage Therapists of Newfoundland and Labrador:

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Meanwhile, the Newfoundland and Labrador Massage Therapy Association agrees with the guidelines. 

"We have in place the absolute best precautions," said Carolyn Staple, the association's chair of outreach and public awareness.

Staple agrees the rules prescribe a lot of protective equipment, but she said it's easier to be overprotective and relax the rules later. When she returns to work, she plans to avoid skin-on-skin contact with patients.

Carolyn Staple, chair of outreach and public awareness with the N.L. Massage Therapists' Association, agrees with the college's guidelines. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

"Any massage therapist is familiar with providing treatment fully clothed. Although it means we can't do skin-on-skin gliding with lotion, there are still beneficial techniques and treatments we can do."

Still, the pandemic makes Moore wonder if things will ever go back to normal.

"We're in a small, most of the time, very poorly ventilated room, for up to an hour one-on-one with a client doing skin-on-skin contact."

Future phases

The college says the phases in their plan will be re-evaluated every 28 days in accordance with the public health alert levels. 

Under Phase 3, the college said therapists must wear a medical or homemade mask. They strongly recommend therapists wear gloves, and use discretion when it comes to wearing a gown and a face shield or goggles.  

It's recommended then that clients wear non-medical masks, and vulnerable populations can seek treatment.

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  • A prior version of this story was written and edited based on the first set of guidelines sent to massage therapists. It has been updated with current guidelines.
    May 15, 2020 9:24 AM NT