For the past 15 months, many US offices have sat essentially empty. Conference rooms and rooms went unused, elevators uncalled for, files untouched. Whiteboards became time capsules. Sukulent had to fend for himself.
But in the coming weeks, many of these workplaces will slowly come back to life. By September, nearly half of Manhattan’s one million office workers are likely to return to their desks, at least part-time, according to a recent survey By Partnership for New York City.
Although the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the United States has decreased significantly – especially for those who have been fully vaccinated – it has not completely disappeared, and Many workers are worried About to return to his desk. (Many others, of course, didn’t have the luxury of working remotely in the first place.)
“If you’re still feeling uncomfortable or anxious, it’s totally understandable,” said Joseph Allen, an expert in healthy buildings who teach at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This pandemic has deeply affected all of us, and people are going to be ready to re-enter life again or to interact with people at different times.”
But scientists have learned a lot about the virus over the past year, and some are clear, evidence based action That employers can take to protect their employees – and that workers can take for their own safety. Some of these strategies are likely to pay dividends out of the current crisis.
Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist at the University of Denver, said, “I think it’s important as a community, but also for individual employers, that we think about these questions not only in relation to this week and this month. ” “How do we make decisions now that well benefit the safety and health of our workplaces in the future?”
Address the risks of closure
Although Covid-19 is a major health concern, prolonged building closures can pose risks of their own. Plumbing systems that sit unused, for example, can be colonized by Legionella pneumophila, bacteria that can cause a type of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease.
“Long standing in the pipes, with lukewarm water – the exact conditions of many under-occupied buildings – create ideal conditions for Legionella to grow,” Dr. Allen said.
some Schools have already reported Detection of bacteria in their water. In buildings with lead pipes or fixtures, there are high levels of toxic metals. Can accumulate in stagnant water. Employers can reduce both risks by flushing their taps thoroughly, or by turning on the water and letting it run before re-opening.
Jennifer Hopponic Redman, a senior environmental health scientist at RTI International, a North Carolina-based non-profit research organization, said, “We know that flushing water during periods of inactivity typically reduces lead levels and potentially reduces lead levels. Bacteria can also form.” She said: “A general rule of thumb is flushing for 15 minutes to an hour for prolonged periods, such as for COVID-19.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends That companies check for mold growth and insect infestation before reopening.
Upgrade ventilation and filtration
“One thing you can do before going back to work is just ask them what they’ve done,” Dr. Allen said. “And if you hear things like ‘yes, we’re getting codes,’ that’s a flag that something isn’t right. They should go above and beyond minimum ventilation and filtration rates.
Although ideal ventilation rates vary, in general, employers should maximize the amount of fresh air coming in from outside, he said. In a relatively small space – eg, a typical school classroom size – employers should aim for four to six air changes per hourThat is, every 10 to 15 minutes the air inside the space is getting completely refreshed. Opening windows can also improve air flow.
High quality air filters, such as rated air filters as MERV 13 or higher, can trap most airborne viral particles. Some commercial buildings are not equipped for these heavy-duty filters; In those offices, portable air purifiers equipped with HEPA filters can be effective, experts said.
“Portable units of this type can do a great job of getting particles out of the room,” Dr. Huffman said. “And the next level is also a desktop level HEPA filter, where you have a really small unit that delivers clean air directly to your breathing area.”
These individual units can be especially helpful in poorly ventilated offices, although experts stressed that employers, not employees, should bear the burden of improving indoor air quality.
Beware of Chemical Disinfection
While ventilation and filtration are important, employers and building managers should stay away from foggers, fumigators. ionizer, ozone generator Or other “air cleaning” devices that promise to neutralize the coronavirus by adding chemical disinfectants to the air. “It’s really awesome ideas to do all these things in indoor air,” said Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University.
The compounds that these products emit – which may include hydrogen peroxide, bleach-like solutions or ozone – can be toxic, can cause inflammation in the lungs, which can lead to asthma attacks and other types of respiratory or cardiovascular problems. There may be problems. And there’s no hard, real-world evidence that these devices actually reduce disease transmission, Dr. The farmer said.
“A lot of employers are now – and school districts and building managers are now thinking they have solved the problem by using those tools,” Dr. The farmer said. “Then they are not increasing the ventilation rates or adding other filters. And so it means that people think they are much safer than they actually are. “
Surface take minimal risk For coronavirus transmission, and disinfectants applied unnecessarily to them can also fly into the air and be toxic when inhaled. So in most typical workplaces, wiping down your desk with bleach is likely to do more harm than good, Dr. The farmer said. (Some specific workplaces — such as hospitals, laboratories or industrial kitchens — may still require disinfection, the experts noted.)
Nor are there any special requirements for special antimicrobial wipes or cleansers, which can fuel The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the elimination of communities of benign or beneficial microbes. “As tempting as it may be to try to sterilize everything, it’s never going to happen, and it can have some really serious consequences,” said Erica Hartman, an environmental microbiologist at Northwestern University.
Don’t Depend on the Desk Shield
In the early months of the pandemic, plastic barriers were erected in schools, shops, restaurants, offices and other shared spaces. “They can be great for stopping big droplets – in fact they are big sneeze guards,” Dr. Huffman said.
But the smallest, lightest particles can float on and around them. These constraints “may not provide enough benefit to justify their cost,” said Martin Bazant, a chemical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. they can also increase the risk by encouraging or transmission of risky behavior obstructing air flow.
There are few environments in which these types of constraints can still make sense. “This can be a really good idea for people who would otherwise have face-to-face contact, like grocery store workers at the cash register,” Dr. The farmer said. “But before that, there’s no use putting yourself in a Plexiglas cage in offices where you’ve been sitting for long periods of time.”
Consider staffing plans carefully
Social distancing may still have some benefits; If an employee is exhaling the infectious virus, people sitting directly in that person’s breathing area are likely to be exposed to the highest doses. “If you were sitting at a shared table space two feet away from someone, there might be some potential value in moving a little further,” Dr. Huffman said.
But aerosols can stay up for hours and travel more than six feet away, so taking the desk apart is likely to reduce returns. “Strict distance orders, such as the six-foot rule, do little to protect against long-distance air transmissions,” Dr. “And can provide a false sense of security in poorly ventilated spaces,” Bazent said.
In offices where most people are vaccinated and local case rates are low, the benefit of distance may be minimal, scientists said. High-risk workplaces may consider de-densification, or reducing the number of people — any of whom may be infectious — who are present at the same time. “For me, the biggest benefit of this social distancing indoors has been,” Dr. The farmer said. “It’s less likely sources of SARS-CoV-2 in a room.”
Companies may allow a subset of employees to work from home indefinitely or on alternate days or weeks. They may also consider “collaborating” or creating separate teams of workers who do not have personal interactions with people who are not on their team.
Creating these types of groups can make it easier to respond if someone contracts the virus, allowing the affected team to quarantine without closing the entire workplace. “When we think about reopening, what we need to think about is what do we do when we inevitably see a case?” Justin Lesler, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said. “There are creative ways to reduce the impact.”
back to basics
Washing hands regularly, which can reduce the spread of all kinds of pathogens, is always a good idea. “The message at the beginning of the pandemic about washing hands and washing your hands for at least 20 seconds – it’s totally valid and still really important,” Dr. Hartman said.
And when your office needs cleaning itself, a mild detergent will usually do the trick, she said: “Soap and water is great.”
Masks are effective too. “If you’re someone who’s vaccinated and still feeling anxious about going back to work, the best thing to do is to continue wearing a mask for the first few weeks until you feel more comfortable.” Do it,” said Dr. Allen.
The scientists recommended that unvaccinated workers continue to wear masks in the office. But for those who are eligible, the most effective risk reduction strategy is clear, Dr Allen said: “The number 1 thing is to get vaccinated.”