COVID-19 Workplace Safety – Avoiding Infection

(Last updated on: September 26, 2020)

Make your job as healthy as your home…

COVID-19 Workplace SafetyWelcome to a blog about COVID-19 workplace safety.

Why should you read this? I’m not a physician, but I am a scientist. I read the news and I read the research reports that drive the news. I’m not infallible, but I can see through hype and spam to focus on the facts that research has revealed. In other posts I have given you my best objective assessment of what science has learned about COVID-19: forecasts, infection, buying groceries, socialization, aerosols, Z-Pak, coronavirus fake versus real, herd immunity.

With those credentials, here I offer my thoughtful advice about COVID-19 workplace safety in the pandemic era. However:

  • If you feel confident about going back to work, great! I will not dissuade you.
  • If you know that, no way, are you going back to your current employer, great! I wish you well in your new life direction.
  • And if you are somewhere in the middle? Then treat this blog as if it were a second opinion: suggestions from a well-meaning friend, with whom you may or may not agree.

The major headings that follow are here:

COVID-19 Workplace Safety: Not a Problem, Rather an Opportunity

What If You are the Boss? (or General Manager, or CEO, …)

Make the Most of Workplace Safety Choices

Tailor Your Work Area for COVID-19 Workplace Safety

Air Control

Time With Others Increases Risk

Don’t Short-Cut Personal Care

COVID-19 Workplace Safety: Not a Problem, Rather an Opportunity

This heading expresses my wife Nola’s forward-looking mantra when faced with any difficulty.

Deciding how to go back to work safely during the pandemic will test your character and your maturity. But people say that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. And that applies to making tough decisions too.

Think through your objectives, your values. You can never have perfect safety, nor perfect job performance, nor perfect family life. If you insist on unattainable goals, you invite frustration. However, it’s perfectly OK to have spectacular aspirations. And you are free to insist on a minimum level in each that feels right to you.

What If You are the Boss? (or General Manager, or CEO, …)

If you have the authority to re-structure your workplace, CDC and many other sources overflow with advice on COVID-19 workplace safety: practical, healthy ways to reopen your business. They comprehensively cover employee testing, cleaning & disinfecting, face masks, distancing and more.

However, don’t be limited to CDC and WHO. Respond to today’s best knowledge. And that includes the need to control airborne infection. Join the forward-looking businesses who are cleaning and refreshing the air. Don’t let your company become an infection hotspot!

I hope that you will also enlarge the options for employees: work from home, blended office/home schedules, work area separation. Also, consider conducting meetings via Zoom even within the office, to reduce in-person face time.

            Sick Employees May Never Show Symptoms

The company should periodically test even employees who appear perfectly healthy. Fortunately, tests are getting better and better. For example, the Yale “saliva test” promises to be fast, inexpensive and non-invasive to the patient. Soon there will be no reason to ration regular testing.

Why is testing important? Because thirty to forty percent of people who are infected with coronavirus never show symptoms! These completely asymptomatic patients tend to be women and under 45 years of age. And fortunately, they suffer suffer less damage from the disease. However, they can still infect other, more vulnerable people around them.

            Speak to the Boss

What if you’re not the boss yourself? If the company is not offering some of the choices that you want, speak up! An employer worth working for is one who will listen and care. And you can magnify your voice by enlisting fellow employees to petition for COVID-19 workplace safety changes that will protect everyone.

Make the Most of COVID-19 Workplace Safety Choices

Whatever your employer chooses to do, you have choices available.

            Do Some Work From Home

Many jobs will offer opportunities to work from home, at least a few days a week, perhaps more. If you have this option, the correct balance is whichever one you choose. And that will depend on your personal objectives.

For example, if I were making the choice, I would try for reduced time in the office. However, one of my values is making a difference, being productive. In most work environments, personal presence enhances teamwork and group productivity, so I would not want to reduce my office time to zero.

Ideally, I would want to be part of a collaborative group where we each have similar values and goals, and each spend about the same time in the office. And if you work closely with folks who compete against you, try to make them frenemies. That is, search for areas where your goals are compatible and make the most of them. However, set boundaries, and don’t mix frenemies with your genuine friends.

For some people their employer, or competitive pressure, may require close to 100% of the workday in the office. And what if that required time is more than makes you feel safe? Then consider another employer, perhaps even another career.

Tailor Your Work Area for COVID-19 Workplace Safety

If you have the right employer, they will adjust your workplace to make it safer, and also allow you some flexibility to adjust it yourself.

            Distance, etc.

Some basic steps for COVID-19 workplace safety are obvious: When working, you need separation from other employees: six or more feet of distance, a sneeze barrier, or preferably both. Usually, you can uncover your face when you’re working alone, but your mask should come back up when you converse with someone else. Keep hand sanitizer close at hand and use it frequently.

The right company will at least require basic steps such these.

Air Control

            Building-Wide Air Control

Where does the air come from that you breathe at work? In most buildings, the HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system recirculates air to save energy. But unfortunately, that type of system also recirculates any airborne infection that is present.

You need to learn about your building’s HVAC, and whether your employer or the building owner has made it coronavirus-safe. Safety calls for HEPA or similar filtering, fresh air introduction or both.

Note to parents: If your child(ren) may soon resume in-person classrooms, I suggest that you ask the administrators of the school similar questions about their building’s air system. Because your kids can’t very well locally control the air around their desks!

            Local Air Control

COVID-19 workplace safety, schematic desktop

Schematic desktop

If what you learn about your building does not reassure you, then you need to improve the air in your immediate work area. This is only practical if you spend most of your workday close to one location, such as a desk.

Yes, you can do this. For example, you and I have known people who found the air conditioning at work to be too chilly. They got a portable space heater and tucked it under their desk, and were as cozy as they wished. Well, you can do exactly the same thing with an air cleaner.

First, find the direction of air flow across your office chair. This is easy to do with the proverbial “finger in the air.”

Is the air flow practically a gale? Then look around and see whether you can block or adjust or redirect air flow from a nearby register. Because if you’re going to clean the air you breathe, that will be easier if the air flow is moderate.

Once you have a reasonable air flow, get a portable air cleaning device that includes a HEPA filter. There are good ones available for under $200: for example, see the CNET and NY Times reviews. Place the air cleaner upstream in the air you breathe. That way, when you inhale, you are breathing clean air that doesn’t include floating viruses riding on aerosols. For COVID-19 workplace safety, run the air cleaner all the time you are at your desk.

Time With Others Increases Risk

Alt text: COVID-19 Workplace SafetyWhatever else you do, you can enhance your personal safety if you control the amount of time when you are exposed to other people. CDC’s rule of thumb is that you should stay at least six feet away from other people; and if you have to be closer than that, limit it to less than 15 minutes. Bear in mind, these numbers are only approximate. In fact, infections have been transmitted over considerably greater distances, as noted in a previous blog.

A number of technical teams are working to develop apps for cellphones to keep track when you spend time close to a person who turns out to be infected. The best designs maintain strict personal privacy: PACT, COVID Watch and DP-3T are three of these. However, there are substantial technical and implementation challenges. And these systems still rely on the cooperation of people who become infected, who need to be willing to share some data.

            Exposure Diary

You don’t have to wait for a high-tech solution to COVID-19 workplace safety. If you are concerned about your cumulative exposure, you can keep track of it, either with an actual diary or simply by paying attention.

Here’s how that might work. You might give yourself a personal budget for how much time you will spend close to other people during the workday. (This is with your mask on, and trying to keep a bit of distance.) That budget will depend on your risk tolerance and your type of work.

For example, suppose you set yourself a budget of two hours for time close enough to other people to have a conversation. If those folks are in your immediate work group, you may already be resistant to whatever bugs they are carrying around. Therefore, they may not pose a big risk. However, if you also meet with people outside your usual group, you might want to limit your time with them to one hour per day.

When you approach your personal limit, find an excuse to stop for the rest of day. Perhaps run an off-site business errand, or go visit a client. Or, you could ask to take off early and make up the time on another day, perhaps after hours when there are not many people around.

Don’t Short-Cut Personal Care

Please don’t forget to exercise personal responsibility for yourself and for your loved ones:

  • If you get coronavirus symptoms, see a doctor at once. (You might want to discuss Z-Pak with them as one of the treatment options.)
  • When there’s a proven vaccine available, you and your family should have it! Science can save your life, but anti-vaxxism is likely to kill you. (Even in the US, people die from measles, a highly preventable disease, for lack of vaccination.)

COVID-19 workplace safety is ultimately your responsibility as an employee. Your employer can and should help, but it is you, not your company, who assumes the deadly risk. I hope these thoughts help you be safe at work in the coronavirus era we are living in.

Image Credits (all from openclipart.org):
Calendar by CoD_fsfe; pedestrian management by algotruneman; pile of work by oksmith; schematic desktop by m1981; business meeting by GDJ; and sad look in mirror by oksmith.

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