by Zee Krstic
Federal guidelines have been released to help employers keep offices as safe as possible, but there are a few risks you should know beforehand.
Many essential workers have had no choice but to continue working despite new rules and settings during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Those who normally work in office settings, however, have been wondering when and how they'll be able to go back to work since March — and what kinds of new safety guidelines they may be subject to when they finally do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a set of guidelines that attempts to help employers bring employees back into an office setting as safely as possible. In doing so, many Americans got a sneak peek of what work life will look like if they return to offices before universal treatment or vaccines are established — though many employers are asking employees to stay homealtogether.
Most of the federal guidelines focus on reducing face-to-face contact in a closed setting, as well as proper disinfection and removing obstacles to maintaining social distancing. A few of the guidelines are challenging to enforce in major cities versus smaller communities and rural towns. But most are designed to reconfigure the office's interior itself. Here's some of what employers can do to keep offices safe, according to the CDC:
- Reimagine public spaces, including closing or redirecting traffic in common work areas like meeting rooms, break rooms, cafeterias or lunch rooms, locker rooms, check-in areas, waiting areas, and entrances and exits.
- Space all desks and seating areas at least six feet apart from one another, and installing barriers or dividers between areas if that's not possible.
- Increase circulation and supply of air flow, including ventilating spaces via open windows or exterior fans if at all possible.
- Check temperatures of all employees who are coming into the space, and if someone should appear to have symptoms, to provide them with masks and send them home to quarantine. Plus, thorough sanitation of this individual's workspace.
- Redesign schedules to encourage less occupancy across the office, including staggering shifts, starting and ending hours, as well as break times.
- Encourage or mandate cloth face coverings for applicable employees and visitors at all times: "Employees should wear a cloth face covering to cover their nose and mouth in all areas of the business."
- Remove communal offerings, including shared kitchen areas that might house coffee machines, snacks, or a water cooler.
- Increased sanitation across the board, including establishing protocol to allow employees to frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds multiple times throughout the day.
- Asking employees to use a mode of transportation to get to work that doesn't include other commuters — biking, walking, driving in a car alone, or being driven by family members.
The full set of CDC guidelines for offices can be found here, but it's up to employers to perfectly adapt them in their own spaces — and that's not an easy feat, says Aileen Maria Marty, M.D., an infectious disease professor at Florida International University's College of Medicine and co-editor-in-chief of journal One Health. "The needs and risks apparent in a smaller office supporting six or seven administrative roles is vastly different than a vast office that might support hundreds of workers in a physical capacity, or those who need to meet face to face constantly," she explains. If you're wondering how the CDC guidelines may apply to you, Dr. Marty reviews the most apparent risks in a shared, enclosed office space of any kind — plus a few steps you can take to reduce your risk.
Ultimately, COVID-19 risks will depend on the office space you work in, and these tips are shared to supplement other instructions. You'll hear from your own employers or human resources manager about re-entry procedures before you return to work. Keep an eye on new information shared by your local public health department and both the CDC and World Health Organization.
What are the risks of working in offices during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Just as with any other inside, shared space, people may be at a greater risk to contract SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis. Shared spaces and highly-trafficked surfaces are among primary concerns, but those are addressed at length in the CDC guidelines. Dr. Marty says these are the foremost risks to be aware of in your office space:
- In-person meetings or person-to-person interaction: The most apparent mode of SARS-CoV-2 transmission is when one person is in direct vicinity of someone else, which could occur quite frequently in an office setting. Even with six feet of space around you, other risks associated with airflow and shared surfaces means even intimate meetings in larger rooms can be risky. "Unless there's a dire reason to get all together, think about doing meetings virtually," Dr. Marty says. "Working from home is a great idea, but you could also do this within a building, if someone is unable to be efficient and effective at home due to equipment needs." Because meetings often involve plenty of prolonged speaking from multiple people, there's a greater chance that infectious airborne droplets are being spread throughout the room you're meeting in.
- Unnecessary physical contact: Even though many people are aware of social distancing guidelines, some may forget that conducting business right now will require the foregoing of social customs. "We don't need handshakes right now, or all the exchanges we're normally used to," Dr. Marty explains, including formalities from offering coffee or water to guests to touring facilities in an office. Plus, there's a chance that you'll innocently bump into someone in close quarters — unless someone is policing areas like hallways or bathrooms, you might come face to face with multiple co-workers throughout the day.
- Air supply and ventilation: Dr. Marty lives in the Miami area, where air conditioning is a way of life. Researchers have established evidence suggesting that air conditioning can impact how long SARS-CoV-2 existswhile floating in the air, or how long it survives on surfaces around you. "The virus prefers the temperatures we like in our spaces, which in most cases, is 74 degrees or cooler. If we're conducting business outside where the heat and humidity, alongside other factors, plays a role in reducing how viable the virus is, the risk is different," Dr. Marty says. "Inside, however, where our AC systems are establishing an interior humidity level that's around 50% humid, [SARS-CoV-2] particles may thrive in these situations compared to being outside. The temperature and humidity levels that humans like best is the same one that the virus thrives in." Even if you don't have AC running in your office, stagnant airflow and air supply can increase risks that you're inhaling or exhaling infectious particles.
How to stay safe if you go back to work:
If you must return to the office, keep these tips in mind and consult the CDC's guidelines and suggestions for employees — and speak about these ideas with your employer if necessary.
- Look for barriers between yourself and surfaces. "You should always have something with you that you can use as a barrier for high-touch areas— it's as simple as having a paper towel to use to touch a handle or to use a light switch," Dr. Marty says. "All bins or drawers should have touchless lids or remain open; there's where the touch aspect of COVID-19 is likely to be an issue."
- Continue to be mindful of washing your hands and touching your face. If you need to touch your face at any point throughout the day (even if you are wearing a mask), you must wash your hands first. Be sure to have a plan in place to frequently wash your hands to reduce the risk that you're acting as a germ carrier between your office and your home (and maybe consider leaving your work materials outside of your home).
- Keep your distance at all times. If someone isn't a member of your household, they may expose you to the virus — full stop. Dr. Marty advises that you refrain from any meetings, avoid "chit chat" and wear a mask if you must do so, only taking it off if you are in a private room that is well ventilated. Anyone speaking, yelling, crying, coughing, or sneezing may be propelling virus particles up to 27 feet around them, theoretically, so it's important to stay distant if at all possible.
- Monitor your symptoms. At the end of the day, the office may become compromised at some point — but an employee who feels they need to push through being sick to show up to work can impact more than just their coworkers. Dr. Marty points out that many of us will have other interactions with people on the way to work and on the way home. "You should really keep a diary of how you're feeling every day; if you feel any of the symptoms or even just under the weather, please stay home and seek medical attention if your condition worsens."
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Associate Health Editor Zee Krstic is a health editor for GoodHousekeeping.com, where he covers the latest in health and nutrition news, decodes diet and fitness trends, and reviews the best products in the wellness aisle.