Steps for a safe return to workplaces

Offices are starting to reopen as the risk of contracting COVID-19 decreases, but employers should still take steps to protect their workers because the risk has not disappeared completely, according to experts.

In a June 11, 2021 New York Times article, Joseph Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and other experts listed ways that employers can make their workplaces safer.

For example, Allen recommended that employers flush their taps or turn on the water and let it run before reopening, because unused plumbing systems can harbor Legionella pneumophila, bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease. Employers should also check for mold growth and pest infestations, according to the article.

Allen also recommended that employers upgrade their ventilation and filtration systems, because the coronavirus is spread primarily through tiny airborne droplets. He said that employers should maximize the amount of fresh air coming in from outdoors, aiming for completely refreshing indoor air every 10 to 15 minutes. He suggested using high-quality air filters, portable air purifiers with HEPA filters, or simply opening windows.

Other recommendations in the article included:

  • Steer clear of chemical disinfection methods such as foggers, fumigators, or other “air cleaning” devices, which may emit compounds that that cause respiratory or cardiovascular problems and which have not been proven to reduce disease transmission.
  • Avoid wiping down surfaces with bleach or other disinfectants, which can wind up in the air and be toxic when inhaled. Use either a mild detergent or soap and water.
  • Don’t rely on plastic desk shields, because the smallest, lightest particles can simply float over and around them.
  • Alternate employees’ schedules to de-densify higher-risk workplaces.
  • Emphasize regular hand-washing and, for unvaccinated workers, mask-wearing.

The most effective risk reduction strategy? “The No. 1 thing is to get vaccinated,” Allen said.

Read the New York Times article: How to Reopen Offices Safely