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COVID-19: Safe Workplace Reopening Strategies

COVID-19 Workplace Safety Tips
  • Published
  • 16 June 2021
  • Category
  • General

There is no fool-proof way to verify COVID-19 vaccination or prevent an outbreak as employees return to their workplaces.

Jeffrey Jacobs, M.D., M.P.H., vice president of WorkCare’s Medical Exams & Travel division and an Associate Medical Director, recommends continuing to take simple, low-cost precautions such as:

  • Wearing masks in common indoor areas for added reassurance.
  • Maintaining distance of 6 feet from others or using plexiglass barriers.
  • Limiting close contact to no more than 15 minutes at a time.
  • Encouraging frequent hand washing or cleaning with hand sanitizer.
  • Monitoring for symptoms and having a quarantine/isolation policy.
  • Promoting COVID-19 vaccination, with or without incentives.

With these protective measures in place, employers can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and also expect fewer sickness absences during the upcoming cold and flu season, he said.

Work Environment

In some cases, employees who were laid off or became remote workers are returning to workplaces that were closed down. Since smaller particles can be transmitted farther than heavier droplets, employers are advised to assess and potentially upgrade ventilation and air filtration systems before bringing workers back.

When an office or industrial facility reopens, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends: 1) abating exposure hazards such as mold, rodents, pests and stagnant water; 2) increasing circulation of fresh air and opening windows, as feasible; 3) checking water supply sources and drainage systems.

Dr. Jacobs suggests aiming for four to six air changes per hour in an office space, meaning the air is refreshed every 10-15 minutes. (Air changes are typically calculated by dividing the volume of air delivered within a unit of time by the volume of the clean zone.) Air changes can be accomplished by increasing ventilation with outside air, installing a MERV-13-rated filter or higher on the building’s HVAC system, and supplementing air quality with local HEPA air purifiers at employees’ desks.

MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) filters are rated by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers. Lower-rated MERV filters are not as effective as a HEPA filter in blocking and filtering small viral/bacterial particles (0.3-1.0 microns in size). All HEPA filters have a rating of at least MERV-17.

 Chemical Disinfectants

Given the importance of clean air and good circulation as a disease prevention measure, building managers are advised to avoid using foggers, fumigators, ionizers, ozone generators and other air- cleaning devices that are claimed to neutralize SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

According to Dr. Jacobs, “these cleaning services/devices may introduce toxins (ozone and hydrogen peroxide) into the air. There is limited scientific evidence that shows they are effective in preventing the spread of illness.” They can also be a trigger for asthma attacks and exacerbate other respiratory or cardiovascular problems.

Studies have found that the likelihood of contracting COVID from surface contact is low. However, safe household products should be routinely used to clean commonly used surfaces and help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Disinfectants containing bleach release toxins that can be harmful when inhaled and should only be used while wearing personal protective equipment and in places where certain sanitation standards must be met, such as hospitals and industrial kitchens.

Other Precautions

Another way to reduce potential exposure risk is to limit the number of employees allowed to be present in the workplace. For example, employees who have been working remotely may be reintroduced to the workplace on alternating days or weeks to reduce the number of staff onsite.

An alternative is to create “bubbles” that limit in-person collaboration to a small number of co-workers. In the event an employee tests positive for COVID-19, everyone in a small work group may also be tested without having to test the entire population because in-person encounters were restricted.

While many states have lifted restrictions and employees are tired of complying with common-sense disease prevention measures, the nature of the pandemic requires continued vigilance. We know what works, and based on the current science, the most expedient way to get safely back to work and a sense of normalcy is vaccination.

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