By Cameron Walker
The recent easing of restrictions in the majority of workplaces, including offices, has been a source of both excitement and trepidation for many people. The removal of the recommendation for Victorians to work from home and the mandate for face masks in most indoor settings, means that many offices will embody a pre-covid atmosphere; however, there may still be a risk of potential for spread of the virus in these work environments. It is important to remember that it is a legal requirement for employers to manage and reduce the risks associated with COVID-19. This is no different to the way employers are required to manage other Occupational Health and Safety Risk, such as the risk of slips, trips or falls, and manual handling.
There are three primary ways that COVID-19 can spread – airborne transmission, droplet transmission and contaminated surfaces, and all of these can be easily reduced by utilising some simple practices that can be embedded in the daily office routine. Fine exhaled droplets may contain the virus and can stay suspended in the air for anywhere from minutes to hours. The risk of inhalation of these drops, and thus viral transmission increases the longer an individual spends in the space – making offices a relatively high risk environment – especially those where workers are static for long periods of time.
Minimising COVID transmition in an office environment
Here are some simple ways to minimise covid transmission in an office environment:
- Provide good airflow and ventilation.
- Conduct regular cleaning/disinfecting of high contact areas such as desks, shared phones, door handles, kitchens, toilets.
- Utilisation of outdoor spaces.
- Personal Hygiene.
- Fitted face masks, especially in forward facing roles
Recommendations on ventilation
To reduce the presence of viral droplets in the air it is recommended that there is an active flow of air through work areas, this can be through encouraging natural ventilation by opening windows and external doors where possible. While natural ventilation is the ideal, it may not be practical in all workplaces – such as those that have security concerns. It can also be achieved through the use of mechanical ventilation, from already installed heating/cooling systems and portable devices such as air purifiers or HEPA filters. The use of mechanical ventilation won’t remove all viral droplets, but they can reduce their presence if used, maintained and regularly cleaned according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Employers are encouraged to work with building owners to improve ventilation where possible, and engage professional assistance when required (e.g., occupational hygienist).
Utilising outdoor space for team activities
Utilisation of outdoor spaces for activities where groups of people congregate, especially from different departments/areas, such as meal breaks and meetings can also help reduce the chance of airborne transmission. Walking meetings are a great option for those offices who don’t have sufficient outdoor areas to hold a traditional meeting. The risk of inhaling droplets, especially indoors, are well known to be reduced through wearing a well-fitting face mask, and while masks are no longer mandatory they are still a recommended method of reducing transmission and employees should not be discouraged from wearing one if they wish to do so. Facemasks are still strongly recommended by the chief medical officer for those working in forward facing environments, such as office receptions, to minimise risks.
Simple environmental hygiene measures
Simple environmental hygiene measures, such as regular cleaning/disinfecting of high contact surfaces where viral droplets may settle – including door handles, counter tops and shared devices such as photocopiers and coffee machines, also minimise the risk of COVID spread. To ensure that these surfaces are regularly cleaned, it is recommended that the responsibility is delicate to a particular individual and that there is an active readily available document where the task is ticked off on each occasion. Hot desks also have a high risk of viral transmission through surface contamination, to reduce this risk it is suggested that they are cleaned at both the beginning and end of each use. To make this process easier, consider having computer safe cleaning wipes at each station and a simple reminder/instruction alongside them.
Other ways to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread
Other ways to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread include – continuing to maintain physical distancing of at least 1.5m between workstations, vaccination and good personal hygiene. Providing readily accessible hand sanitiser and hand wash stations with quality soap is recommended, as is utilising temporary partitions between workstations when physical distancing isn’t possible. Employers are still under a duty to ensure that employees know what to do and who to notify if they have a confirmed or suspected case of COVID19.
Keeping your COVID Safe Plan up to date
It is important that all of these measures are documented clearly in the workplace COVID Safe Plan, and that this plan is easily available to all employees. Providing employees with easily understandable training and information can also help improve adherence to these measures – including brief training during meetings/huddles and posters in prominent locations are both great ways of keeping staff up to date and reduce any possible outbreaks and resulting time off work!
Remember that COVID risks should be approached in the same way that physical and psychological risks are. By conducting risk assessment employers are able to better understand the risks and identify adequate control measures. Employers should aim for a practical and preventative approach to workplace health and safety.
With thanks to our guest author:
Walker Safety Services
Cameron Walker from Walker Safety Services is armed with a wealth of knowledge in workplace health and safety. Determined to help businesses improve and prioritise the safety of their staff, he is a specialist in making workplace health and safety a part of any organisation’s workplace culture. To get in touch with Cam, head to Walker Safety Services’ contact form here.