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How to safely reopen your office

For the past 15 months, many American offices have been essentially empty. The meeting room and cubicles were not used, the elevator was not called, and the files were unchanged. The whiteboard is now a time capsule. Succulents had to protect themselves.

But in the coming weeks, many of these workplaces will slowly squeak and come back to life. About half of Manhattan’s million office workers are likely to return to their desks by September, at least for some time. Recent survey By partnership with New York City.

In the United States, the risk of getting Covid-19 is significantly reduced, especially for those who are completely vaccinated, but it has not completely disappeared. Many workers remain nervous About returning to their desk. (Of course, many others never had the luxury of working remotely in the first place.)

“If you’re still feeling uncomfortable or anxious, that’s perfectly understandable,” said Joseph Allen, a healthy building expert who teaches at the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University. I will. “This pandemic has had a serious impact on all of us, and people are either ready to re-enter life or re-enter interaction with people at different times.”

But scientists have learned a lot about viruses over the past year, and some clear, Evidence-based steps What an employer can take to protect a worker, and what a worker can take to protect himself. Some of these strategies may pay dividends that last longer than the current crisis.

Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist at the University of Denver, said: “I think it’s important to think about these questions, not just this week and this month, but also for individual employers, not just as a community.” We look forward to the safety and health of our workspace in the future. How do you make a decision that benefits you? “

Covid-19 is a major health concern, but long-term building closures can pose a risk of their own. For example, an unused plumbing system Can be colonized by Legionella pneumophila, a bacterium that can cause a type of pneumonia known as legionellosis.

“If the stagnant lukewarm water in the pipes lasts for a long time, the exact condition of the building, which is currently uninhabited, creates an ideal condition for the growth of Legionella,” Dr. Allen said.

A few School has already reported Find bacteria in their water.High levels of toxic metal in buildings with lead pipes and fixtures Can also accumulate in stagnant water.. Employers can reduce the risk of both by thoroughly flushing the faucet or turning it on and flushing it before resuming.

Jennifer Hoponic Redmon, Senior Environmental Health Scientist at RTI International, a North Carolina-based non-profit research organization, said: She added: “The general rule of thumb is 15 minutes to 1 hour of flushing for long-term closures such as Covid-19.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Also recommended Companies check for mold growth and pest epidemics before resuming.

Coronavirus is mainly Small aerial splash, Employer needs to upgrade Ventilation and filtration systems before bringing back workers, according to experts.

“One of the things you can do before you get back to work is to ask them what they did,” Dr. Allen said. And if you hear something like “Yes, we meet the code”, it’s a flag that indicates something is wrong. They should exceed the minimum ventilation and filtration rates. “

The ideal ventilation rate varies, but in general, employers need to maximize the amount of fresh air coming in from the outdoors, he said. In a relatively small space (for example, the size of a typical school classroom), the employer should aim to: Air exchange 4-6 times per hourThat is, the air in the space is completely refreshed every 10 to 15 minutes. You can also improve the air flow by opening the windows.

High quality air filter like rated As MERV13 or above, Can trap most of the airborne virus particles. Some commercial buildings are not equipped with these rugged filters. According to experts, portable air purifiers with HEPA filters may be effective in these offices.

“These types of portable units can do a great job of removing particles from the room,” said Dr. Huffman. “And the next level is even a desktop-level HEPA filter, where there is a really small unit that provides clean air to your direct breathing zone.”

While these personal units can be particularly useful in poorly ventilated offices, experts emphasized that employers, not employees, should bear the burden of improving indoor air quality.

Ventilation and filtration are very important, but employers and building managers are sprayers, fumigators, Ionizer, Ozone generator Or another “air purifier” that promises to neutralize the coronavirus by adding a chemical disinfectant to the air. Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University, said:

The compounds released by these products (hydrogen peroxide, bleach-like solutions, ozone, etc.) are toxic, inflame the lungs, cause asthma attacks, and cause other types of respiratory or cardiovascular problems. It can cause it. And there is no rigorous real-world evidence that these devices actually reduce the transmission of the disease, Dr. Farmer said.

“Currently, many employers, and school district and building managers, believe they have used these devices to solve their problems,” said Dr. Farmer. “Therefore, they haven’t increased ventilation or added other filters, which means people think it’s safer than it really is.”

surface Bring minimal risk Disinfectants applied due to the transmission of coronaviruses, and unnecessarily applied to them, can also be trapped in the air and become toxic when inhaled. Therefore, in most normal workplaces, wiping a desk with bleach is likely to be more harmful than good, Dr. Farmer said. (Experts say that some specific workplaces, such as hospitals, laboratories, and industrial kitchens, may still require disinfection.)

Also, no special antibacterial wipes or cleansers are required. May supply fuel Eliminate the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains and the community of benign or beneficial microorganisms. Erica Hartman, an environmental microbiologist at Northwestern University, said:

In the early days of the pandemic, plastic barriers emerged in schools, stores, restaurants, offices and other common spaces. “They may be great at stopping big droplets — really they are big sneezing guards,” said Dr. Huffman.

But the smallest and lightest particles can simply float on or around them. Martin Bazant, a chemical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said these barriers “may not provide sufficient benefits to justify costs.” they May even increase risk Transmission of illness by encouraging more dangerous behavior Obstruct the flow of air.

There are some environments where these types of barriers may still make sense. “It might be a really good idea for people who are otherwise in close contact with each other, like cashier grocery workers,” Dr. Farmer said. “But after that, in an office where you sit for a long time, there is no benefit to putting yourself in a plexiglass cage.”

Social distance may still have some advantages. If an employee is exhaling an infectious virus, a person sitting directly in his or her breathing zone is very likely to be exposed to the highest dose. “If you were sitting in a shared tablespace two feet away from someone, it might be worth the potential to be a little further away,” said Dr. Huffman.

However, aerosols can stay in the air for hours and travel well beyond 6 feet, so moving your desk far can cause diminishing returns. “Strict distance commands, such as the 6-foot rule, have little effect on protecting against long-distance aerial propagation, and can also give false relief in poorly ventilated areas,” Bazant said. The doctor said.

According to scientists, most people are vaccinated, and in offices with low case rates in the area, the benefits of distance are probably minimal. In high-risk workplaces, it is advisable to consider increasing the density or reducing the number of people who are present at the same time (those who may be infected). “It was the greatest advantage of this social distance indoors for me,” said Dr. Farmer. “There are only a few potential sources of SARS-CoV-2 in the room.”

Companies may allow a subset of employees to work from home indefinitely, or every few days or weeks. You can also consider “cohorting,” that is, creating another team of workers who do not interact directly with people who are not on the team.

Creating these types of cohorts makes it easier for someone to respond if someone gets infected with the virus and allows affected teams to quarantine the entire workplace without shutting it down. “When we think about resuming, we need to think about what to do if an incident inevitably occurs,” said Justin Lessler, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “There are creative ways to mitigate the impact.”

Regular hand washing, which can reduce the spread of all types of pathogens, is always a good idea. “The message about washing your hands at the beginning of the pandemic and washing your hands for at least 20 seconds is perfectly valid and still very important,” said Dr. Hartmann.

And when your office itself needs cleaning, mild detergents will generally do the trick, she added: “soap and water are great.”

Masks are also effective. “If you’re vaccinated and still worried about getting back to work, it’s best to keep wearing the mask for the first few weeks until you’re more comfortable,” Dr. Allen said. Stated.

Scientists have recommended that unvaccinated workers continue to wear masks in the office. But for qualified people, the most effective risk mitigation strategy is clear, Dr. Allen said: “The best thing is to get vaccinated.”

How to safely reopen your office

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