When the COVID-19 outbreak began, few perceived the world would be affected this much. Seemingly low risk aspects of life suddenly have the potential to cause incredible harm, such as grocery shopping, meeting family, or being near a colleague.

The world has changed in an unprecedented manner, and we have been forced to work outside of our comfort zones (like at home!).

However, health and safety professionals are well acquainted with managing risk in the workplace. What has changed is where risk lies.

As no one is immune to this coronavirus, workplaces with traditionally low perceived risk of harm have been thrown in the limelight, among them open offices.

Even in countries where there are strict lockdown restrictions, many employees continue to work in open offices, either because it is impossible for them to work from home or because highly confidential information is being handled.

Furthermore, office employees are not necessarily as used to following strict health and safety protocol as their counterparts at tank terminals, oil rigs or construction sites.

With all this in mind, here we look at how employers are using the hierarchy of controls in the office during COVID-19.

What are the infection hotspots in the office?

To draft out a plan for a safer office environment, it is important to understand the hazard itself and how it is threatening the workforce.

For COVID-19, research has shown that it can be transferred through droplets produced when we cough or sneeze that travel through air like aerosols. Droplets can infect a healthy host in two ways: by landing on surfaces which someone later touches, or by being breathed in through the air.

Open offices have become one of the riskiest workplace environments because they are indoor areas where workers are likely near each other for more than 15 minutes at a time.

People are voicing their concerns, with 52.9% of Americans believing that open offices will play a key role in increasing the rate of infection.

Validating this, studies have shown that bacteria found on one office doorknob could spread across 40-60% of employees in 2 to 4 hours.

In terms of coronavirus, Germany managed to trace the country’s first community transmission chain back to a saltshaker in an office cafeteria.

What measures are in place to protect ‘skeleton staff’?

In order to mitigate or even eliminate the effects of a hazard, controls can be put in place.

The Hierarchy of Controls is a longstanding guide that categorizes possible measures. Since the coronavirus hazard can be neither eliminated nor substituted, controls likely fall within Engineering, Administrative or PPE.

To implement the correct controls, health and safety professionals should conduct a risk assessment. This way, hazards and controls are accurately documented and can be more easily repeated elsewhere or in future.

Engineering Controls

Engineering Controls most often do not rely on worker behavior, but use physical barriers to reduce the worker’s exposure to the hazard.

1. Physical Barriers

You may have noticed your local supermarket putting in place barriers between cashiers and customers. Plexiglass screens are becoming more and more common among businesses that cannot avoid human interaction.

Although in the office there is little to no interaction with the customer, the truth is that, especially in open offices, there is a high level of interaction between co-workers.

Putting barriers in place between employees is the antithesis of an open office, but by doing so, the level of risk caused by human interaction is reduced.

Apart from offering a degree of physical protection, desk screens and dividers can also be a visual reminder to practice social distancing in the workplace.

2. Ventilation

Infection risks can be higher in indoor crowded or poorly ventilated spaces. Although it is hard to eliminate an airborne hazard, the risk of exposure can be minimized through effective ventilation systems, with adequate filtration and maintenance.

These conditions should be sustained regardless of the COVID-19 outbreak, since it is an essential part of OSHA’s Building Operations and Management Guidelines to ensure a healthy Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) by keeping a building’s HVAC system well maintained and cleaned. 

The Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations published recommendations regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, including increasing operating hours of these systems, as they can remove many airborne contaminants and positively impact overall health.

Administrative Controls

Administrative Controls modify the way we usually work to reduce exposure to the hazard. These are typically changes to procedure and require the active collaboration of workers to be effective.

1. Physical Distancing

Social and physical distancing are two of the main administrative controls being encouraged globally to reduce the spread of infection.

Think of distancing as a firebreak in a forest fire. As the host of the virus, humans are the fuel coronavirus is burning on. By creating a distance between hosts, we are taking away the ability of the virus to burn through any more fuel. In theory, eventually, like a forest fire, it will extinguish.

The most practiced physical distancing is requiring staff to work from home where possible. By mid-February, about 46% of employers in the US had already started encouraging their staff to work remotely. Unfortunately, sometimes this is not a viable approach.

In this case, companies can do one of two things:

1. Reduce presential workers

When sending your staff home to work remotely is not possible, the next best thing is to limit the number of employees in the office at one time. This practice is known as ‘staggered shifts’ and has been put into practice during the pandemic.

Global insurance firm Marsh is using this method to increase the amount of space available per employee, making physical distancing easier.

2. Increase Physical Space

Some companies have started using something called ‘ghost offices’ for their ‘skeleton staff’ – an unfortunate turn of phrase in the current situation. Whoever came up with these terms could do with a little cheer.

Ghost offices are backup offices for an emergency or disaster that would render the normal offices impossible to use.

Although not originally intended to be used during a pandemic, companies have been relying on these facilities to distribute their staff out over more than one office and comply with the physical distancing guidelines.

2. Visual Reminders

One of the reasons it has been so easy for the virus to spread, even after safety guidelines were announced, is because humans are creatures of habit.

As a Spaniard living in the UK, I received mixed reactions when I thoughtlessly greeted new acquaintances with a kiss on each cheek. Seven years later I still catch myself.

The behaviors that COVID-19 has forced us to modify are embedded in our subconscious. You don’t usually notice how much you touch your face, and you are only now starting to be painfully aware of people who walk within your 2-meter safety bubble.

It takes humans an average of 21 days to form a habit, but until then, safety signs are a good alternative in the workplace. They work as a continual reminder for employees to follow appropriate safety guidelines, even those that do not come naturally.

With this in mind, Pro-Sapien created a COVID-19 Awareness Icons Pack which is readily available to download for free.

Download the COVID-19 Awareness Icons →

3. Office Hygiene

During the first few weeks of panic, we all received an insurgent number of emails from customer-facing companies reassuring us that measures were being taken to prevent infection while continuing to conduct business. Almost every email mentioned increased cleaning activities of company premises.

The truth is, they were right to do so. This health crisis has raised awareness of workplace hygiene, and given the virus can survive for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel surfaces, regular disinfecting is a necessary measure.

Cleaning staff have risen to the challenge and are doubling their efforts to meet the tougher requirements of their job during the pandemic. They are part of the essential workers still putting themselves at risk every day to stay at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19.

Although regular and thorough daily cleaning should still be carried out, the CDC has issued further recommendations on best practice. Companies with cases of COVID-19 should disinfect any areas the employees infected have come into contact with, especially shared electronic equipment like keyboards and touchscreens.

When carrying out cleaning tasks, most EPA-registered household disinfectants are effective, but diluted household bleach solutions will also do the job when appropriate for the surface. In both cases, manufacturer’s instructions should be closely followed.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Personal Protective Equipment should be the last line of defense. The main function of PPE is to act as a shield between the hazard and the employee.

Demand for certain sanitary products has skyrocketed, both from the general public and health institutions, and so have Google Searches for the term ‘PPE’. In March, there was a 1,900% increase in searches compared to the last 12 months’ average.

However, PPE is less important in offices than it is in health centers and hospitals, which means supply should be prioritized for workers with higher risk.

1. Face Masks

If you had walked down the street two months ago and saw everyone wearing sanitary masks, you would probably wonder how fashion firms managed to pull that off. Nowadays, no one raises an eyebrow.

Demand for masks has catapulted due to the crisis, to the point there is a global shortage. However, some firms like Amazon have managed to secure a supply of surgical-grade masks and have distributed them across sites (they are donating any N-95 masks to healthcare workers).

However, it is worth noting that the use of these sanitary items does not provide fool-proof protection to the wearer, and that their use should always be combined with frequent hand washing.

Following WHO advice, you should always wear a mask in public if you suspect you might have the virus, for the safety of the people around you.

An ongoing risk for offices and beyond

If we have learned anything from history, it is that our survival as a species has found its fair share of obstacles. And, guess what? We made it this far.

Our ability to adapt has made it possible for us to live in wildly different climates, to overcome natural disasters, wars, and yes, pandemics.

Although most offices have been able to limit the number of workers coming into work, many organizations have had to maintain full-scale office operations to supply the world of essential products and services—including emergency dispatch offices, air traffic control towers, health advice call centers, and more.

It is likely that virus transmission will be an ongoing risk that all workplaces, including offices, must mitigate.

If you have started preparing your return to work safety plan, we have created a checklist of questions you should be considering.

In addition, downloading the whitepaper below will give you guidance for your response plan, and ideas on what other companies are doing.

If you’re a client, you can use Pro-Sapien’s EHS software in these new ways to manage your COVID-19 response.

COVID-19 Return To Work Safety  A Guide for Safety Managers Continue Reading→

Irene Zueco is the Marketing and Communications Executive at Pro-Sapien. Irene graduated from Strathclyde University with a Master’s in International Business and Modern Languages in 2018. She has lived in Spain and Italy, but 7 years ago decided to move to Scotland where she currently resides despite the weather. Outside of work she enjoys travelling and good food, preferably paired with a good wine too.

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