As some states are pressuring elder care facilities to accept residents who have tested positive for COVID-19, and American businesses are considering reopening, many are concerned about maintaining employee and patient safety when they do so. For employers and facility managers, the challenge will be to mitigate risk as much as possible, with practices and policies that put people’s safety first. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), most American workers will likely experience low or medium exposure risk levels at their job or place of employment (see OSHA guidance). However, it is important to remain actively vigilant. The good news is that the common-sense practices that we are currently applying in our personal lives during this pandemic — such as social distancing, impeccable hand hygiene and isolating when we are sick — can easily translate to an office environment. But what else can employers and facility managers do to demonstrate that they take the health of their employees, patients and customers seriously?
We have compiled a list of 10 tips to safely (re-)open workplace facilities.
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First and foremost, each facility should have a designated and clearly identified workplace coordinator who will be responsible to monitor and enforce COVID-19 safety policies. Employees should feel supported in their effort to keep themselves and others safe, including with the use of protective equipment such as masks. The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. This is to keep the transmission of respiratory droplets from spreading. This simple measure will help protect everyone in the office, especially those who are part of or in contact with at-risk population. It can be difficult to wear a mask all day, but workplaces could implement a policy where employees are required to wear a mask in common areas. Masks can then be off in cubicles or individual offices. A study in Nature Scientific Reports in 2019 found that people emit aerosol particles (which might include germs and the virus) when they speak. The louder you talk, the more particles may be emitted. Watch how far those droplets travel during a conversation. Most of them are invisible to the naked eye. Wearing a cloth mask, even if not medical grade, is a way to contain these droplet clouds and protect others from ourselves and ourselves from others.
Yay, fewer meetings!
For the reasons mentioned above, even though it may be tempting to go back to our friendly habits after weeks in isolation, employees should continue to minimize physical contact. Dr. Jeffrey Martin, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California reports that talking for some time with someone infected with the COVID-19 virus 6 feet away may be a risk (Source: livescience.com). That means that whenever possible, conversations should be carried out using technology. Email is a notoriously flawed communication medium where all intonation, body language and sometimes syntax are lost, fostering poor communication, misunderstandings and tensions. However videoconference, phone, (walky-talky?) are still viable substitutes to a face-to-face conversation.
The ideal work situation when it comes to COVID-19 safety would be that every employee be able to work in a separate room. However, not everyone can have their own office and you may not be able to move furniture and work tools around. Cubicles are the next best thing because they offer a barrier between workers. If you cannot move furniture to separate employees, placing barriers such as larger pieces of wood, cardboard or plastic between desks may be a solution. Bonus point, it also increases privacy in open spaces and may be an opportunity to personalize your workstation.
It is nice to feel protected at your workstation, but you likely need to use common areas in order to do your job or just to indulge pesky bodily needs. Although the free snacks and the coffee station are a welcome perk, you might want to hold off for a little longer. Capitalize on the new habits and skills that you developed when stuck at home and bring your own silverware, food, beverages and coffee from home, rather than using the breakroom resources, if you can. If you must have your freshly brewed cappuccino, you might want to set your own machine on your desk for now.
A study published in The Lancet Microbe tested how long COVID-19 can last on common surfaces. In a 71°F room with 65% humidity (much higher than most workplaces), the virus disappeared from printer and tissue paper in only 3 hours. It took 2 days to vanish from wood and cloth and 7 days for plastic and stainless steel.
We were vaguely aware of how unclean our phones are before the pandemic, but now is the time to take a good hard look at our phone cleaning habits. How often do you place your phone on common areas, then touch it and bring it to your face? It is a good idea to wipe your phone with disinfectant once a day or more, especially when you are back in the office. Ever borrowed something from a colleague’s desk, just for a second? When it comes to your workstation, it does not hurt to wipe down your desk, keyboard and mouse every morning before starting the workday.
OK, but what of the common work tools? Use common sense and good gym practices. Wipe the station before and after you use it. Employers should keep sanitizing wipes near each common use tool and refill station. If you cannot find any of these products, you can make an effective homemade disinfectant from a mixture of water and bleach (Blog to create and link: common products that destroy SARS-CoV-2 (CDC's list of disinfectants for use against SARS-CoV-2). No disinfectant works instantly, so ideally, you want to allow the disinfectant to do its job - up to 10 minutes - so it is all the more important to clean after yourself, to help protect others.
Remember: “It isn’t possible to disinfect every surface you touch throughout your day,” says Stephen Thomas, M.D., chief of infectious diseases and director of global health at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. “The planet is covered with bacteria and viruses, and we’re constantly in contact with these surfaces, so hand-washing is still your best defense against COVID-19.”
Human testing has been on everyone's mind since the beginning of this pandemic. Those tests utilize a simple yet extremely powerful method, well known by all biologists. Environmental testing, which includes air and surface testing, are based on the same method and are extremely sensitive. The minimum infectious dose of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is unknown so far, but researchers suspect it is low. A high infectious dose may lead to a higher viral load, which can impact the severity of Covid-19 symptoms. Viral load is a measure of virus particles. It is the amount of virus present once a person has been infected and the virus has had time to replicate in their cells. The Enviral Tech Surface Check and Air Check kits can detect down to 20 viral particles on your surfaces. We may be the ones bringing you these tests, but our experience working with various customers is that testing your facilities is a crucial step to preventing outbreaks and limiting the spread of the contamination in the workplace and in elder care facilities, especially at times when human tests can be hard to come by.
Spring is here. When safety and facilities allow it, open windows or adjusting air conditioners to increase air circulation and flow (CDC recommendation).
The CDC provides guidance for employers and businesses to plan for the return to work. Assess your essential functions and consider recalling workers on a case-by-case basis. For example, you may want to first bring back employees whose job efficiency would benefit the most from having access to the facilities that the workplace offers and who have had no symptoms of COVID-19 during their furlough/layoff initially. Other employees like salespeople, the marketing team or software developers might be able to continue to work from home with minimum impact on their work.
Following the CDC guidance, the next step would be to recall staff members who were ill and have recovered, either from COVID-19 or another illness, and employees who were asymptomatic employees but tested positive for COVID-19. When returning these staffers to the job, maintain, support and enforce safe work practices. For example, some businesses are taking their employees’ temperatures before they enter the facility and provide home-made regularly cleaned masks. Openly discuss the re-opening of your facilities with your workers and make sure that they know how you plan on keeping them safe. Organizations should encourage employees to consider their own health and potentially ask for remote work, time off, or other options if they feel their situation warrants additional measures. When possible, allow employees to work from home a bit longer if requested.
Employees should be required to stay home or notify their manager immediately and go home when they are or feel sick. Some of your co-workers or employees may be at higher risk due to health conditions. The conditions that constitute a higher risk when infected with COVID-19 are common affections that likely affect a significant portion of your team, such as diabetes (10.5% of the U.S. population), asthma (7.7% of adults in the U.S.) and heart disease (at least 12.5% of the U.S. population). Your co-workers may have chosen to share this information or not, some may also care for elder relatives at home. Be mindful and assume that you are in direct contact with at-risk co-workers.
Develop and share with your workers a preparedness and response plan that can help guide protective actions against COVID-19. Plan to respond in a flexible way to varying levels of disease transmission in the community and be prepared to rapidly implement measures to lower the risk of contamination of other workers.
Finally, ask employees for suggestions they may have to minimize risk and slow the spread. The more we help each other, the sooner we may be able to get back to normal.
Yoanne Clovis started her career as a researcher trained in genetics and developmental neuroscience. In 2012, she joined InVivo Biosystems, a biotech company focusing on helping researchers and pharmaceutical companies discover and test new treatments for human diseases as scientist and customer success advocate. In March 2020, Yoanne joined Enviral Tech, where she is has been leading the marketing team at Enviral Tech.