Offices are a centre of infection at the best of times due to the number of people sharing one building or room and the large number of common surfaces that people will touch during the day. Colds, flu and gastrointestinal infections can run riot in the office environment and people almost expect to pick up coughs, sniffles and sore throats when colleagues suffer from them.
When the infections are relatively mild, a day or two at home or in bed to recover don’t seem that bad, but, during the coronavirus crisis, the risk of catching a serious infection from a colleague is far greater. We all need to take much stricter precautions to prevent picking up or passing on COVID-19 infections via our hands, contaminated surfaces or through airborne droplets and aerosols.
Here’s a list of precautions you should take to stop the spread of infections in a shared environment such as an office. You can read the advice below and download a handy poster for printing and displaying in your office to remind colleagues of the five precautions.
Hands are a very common route of catching and spreading infections. Hand hygiene is the most important advice issued by WHO and medical leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. We frequently touch our mouth, nose and face and pick up mucus and saliva containing infectious microorganisms, from our mouth, nose, lungs and throat. Our hands can then contaminate common surfaces such as light switches, key pads, kettles, door handles and taps. Hands also transfer infections in the reverse direction after touching surfaces contaminated by others.
Coughing and sneezing etiquette
Respiratory bacteria and viruses are also spread in mucus and saliva by coughs and sneezes launching contaminated droplets far into the air. In fact, even breathing, talking and singing emit air-borne droplets that fall onto nearby surfaces and all create aerosols that can carry microbes and remain airborne for hours.
The solution: educate and encourage employees to use a tissue or the inside of their elbow when coughing or sneezing, to contain most of the droplets. Social distancing, good ventilation and air filtration are also recommended for air hygiene in offices.
Surfaces can be thought of as the hubs for cross-infection. Think of anything that you might touch in an office and it could be a source of contamination. As mentioned above, other people’s hands, coughing, sneezing, talking and breathing can all transfer contaminated particles to surfaces either directly or after falling out of the air.
There are numerous surfaces in an office, such as furniture, shared equipment – including those items in the office kitchen – and door handles and push plates. Don’t forget the washroom, which we talk about below.
The washroom is perhaps the first place people consider as a hygiene risk in offices. The shared toilet facilities can give people bad experiences of others’ personal hygiene and there is a well-founded belief that many people don’t wash their hands properly or at all.
Toilet sneeze caused by flushing can spread round the room and contaminate surfaces in the washroom with faecal particles. All the surfaces that people touch, including door handles, tissue dispensers, feminine hygiene units, flush handles, taps, soap dispensers, counter surfaces and hand driers can be sources of cross-contamination. Any personal item brought in to the washroom can also be another route of contamination from hands or surfaces.
Snacks and lunches are often eaten at office desks and many people store food at their desks. Eating will spread food particles around the workspace – on the floor, chair, worktop, computer keyboard and in drawers. Food can attract pests or decay and go mouldy, if left for long periods.
The solution: old food or food particles should not be left around the workspace and those who eat food should clean up after eating.
There are many issues in creating a safe work environment in the post-COVID-19 world. Employers need to both prevent infections and reassure staff and customers that they’re safe. These include physical solutions for social distancing, better cleaning regimes, making suitable hand and surface hygiene materials available and providing educational materials for staff.
For more information on protecting employees in the new workplace environment and how Initial can help, download our free ebook on returning to work.