Walking, biking or driving your own car are the safest ways to get to work now, experts say. PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK
Safety Advice on Commuting to the Office And Reducing Your Risks Once You’re There
| le 4 June 2020
As offices begin reopening after coronavirus lockdowns, here are precautions to take on your commute, at your desk, and in meetings
By Andrea Petersen – The Wall Street Journal
As many states continue their gradual reopening from coronavirus lockdowns, office employees are beginning to venture back to their workplaces.
People are likely to see many changes, from spaced out cubicles to mask-required meetings. Some businesses are planning to bring back only a portion of workers to the office or are instituting shifts to allow for social distancing. There are plenty of safety steps individual workers can take, too. Here’s what the experts advise to reduce your risks.
What is the safest way to commute into the office?
Walking or biking to work or driving your own car are the safest options, says Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minn. “If you’re on a train or bus, you have to realize that this is a very effective petri dish for the spread of respiratory pathogens,” he says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance recommending that companies offer incentives to employees to “use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others” including biking, walking, driving alone in a car or riding with members of your household.
If you must use public transportation, wear a face mask and “be really cautious about hand hygiene,” using hand sanitizer and washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, says Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
What about taking a taxi or using a ride-share service?
Taking a taxi or using Uber or Lyft is generally less risky than the bus or train, “particularly if the driver is wearing a mask,” says Dr. Kuritzkes. You’re likely near only one potentially infectious person rather than the dozens on public transportation, and the driver’s mask “will provide some protection for the passenger” by trapping droplets that are emitted while coughing, sneezing or exhaling. Dr. Kuritzkes notes that those old-school plexiglass shields in some taxis can provide some protection, too. He suggests opening the car windows to increase air circulation, which can dilute the number of virus particles per volume of air.
The CDC has issued recommendations for ride-share and taxi drivers that include wearing face-coverings in public and asking customers to handle their own bags. Last month, Uber and Lyft announced new policies requiring drivers and passengers to wear face coverings. Uber says it has shipped disinfecting wipes and spray and 4.5 million face masks to drivers around the country, prioritizing hard-hit areas like New York City. Lyft says it has distributed nearly 100,000 “sanitizing products” and has begun handing out “hundreds of thousands of cloth face coverings” to drivers. Before each ride, Lyft now also requires passengers and drivers to “self-certify” via the app that they don’t have Covid-19 symptoms, will wear face coverings, sanitize their hands and leave windows open if possible.
Once I arrive, how can I make my own office or desk space safer?
Even if you’re the only one who uses your computer and desk, you should still disinfect your workspace once or twice a day, says David Krause, a certified industrial hygienist and toxicologist and chair of the indoor environmental quality committee at the American Industrial Hygiene Association. “As you get up and go to the refrigerator, grab a door handle, pick up the phone, you’ve just transferred whatever is on the door handle to your phone,” Dr. Krause says. But he advises to avoid cleaning too often, since fumes from alcohol and chlorine-based cleaners can cause eye, skin and respiratory irritation.
Dr. Krause says building-wide ventilation and air filtration systems will be important “to manage the hazard over and above what people are doing.” Portable air cleaners with HEPA (for high-efficiency particulate air) filters placed in individual offices, elevators and conference rooms can help, too, he says. These cleaners feature ratings detailing their “clean air delivery rate” for a specific size room. Dr. Krause says to buy the one with a rating “the highest you can afford.” But if you plan to use an air cleaner in an open-plan office, consult building engineers for advice on where to place it. Air cleaners emit exhaust: A poorly placed one could end up directing virus-laden air to co-workers. And avoid fans. “Uncontrolled direction of airflow may hurt one person and help another,” Dr. Krause says.
What do I need to think about when moving around the office?
The CDC recently said that Covid-19 primarily spreads between people. Contaminated objects are not likely to be a major source of infection. Still, surfaces like elevator buttons, doorknobs and printer buttons should be disinfected regularly. Employees should use a tissue or paper towel to handle them and immediately use sanitizer or wash their hands, says Dr. Poland.
Do I need to be worried about meetings?
Zoom meetings aren’t going away anytime soon. “What we do in meetings, we’re talking. We’re talking loudly,” says Dr. Krause. Covid-19 is transmitted primarily via respiratory droplets emitted when talking, coughing and sneezing. “If one person is infectious, the potential for spreading is quite high,” he says. For meetings that must be in person, Dr. Krause suggests reducing the number of participants so there’s the recommended six-feet of distance between them. Wear masks, too. And outfit the conference room with an air cleaner with a HEPA filter. Or take the meeting outside, where there’s more ventilation and airflow.
How should I handle coffee breaks and lunch?
The biggest risk associated with coffee and lunch is being around other people, says Benjamin Chapman, a professor of food safety at North Carolina State University. So eating alone at your desk is likely the safest move. If you’re deciding whether to brown-bag it or get take out, go for the option that involves less contact with others. “If I have to stand in line at a food truck, that’s being around more people,” Dr. Chapman says. “We’re trying to limit the number of collision points of people being around other people.” There appears to be no evidence that people can contract the virus by eating it in food, experts say.
Lunch dates with colleagues, even outside, can be risky, since “I can’t wear a face covering while eating,” says Dr. Chapman. A better option is to eat on your own and then head for a masked and socially distanced walk with a colleague afterward.
The CDC is advising businesses to “replace high-touch communal items, such as coffee pots, water coolers, and bulk snacks, with alternatives such as prepackaged, single-serving items.” Dr. Chapman says many businesses are also removing or turning off water fountains, since “we don’t have a good sense how to clean and disinfect it yet.”
Using the office microwave or refrigerator is likely low-risk, as long as you can steer clear of other people and wash your hands after using. (Keypads and door handles should also be disinfected regularly.) “The virus is not going to fly from my lunch to your lunch,” Dr. Chapman says. “The person is the vector, not the lunch.”
How can I protect myself in the elevator?
Elevators can be a problem, says George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco, since it is nearly impossible to keep an appropriate distance from other people in such a small space. Everyone should be wearing masks. And “face the wall so you’re not breathing in someone else’s breath,” he says.
What are the office danger spots?
The office bathroom is the real hot zone, says Dr. Poland. Some research has found that the novel coronavirus is present in stool and can remain in the digestive tract long after it has been cleared from the respiratory system. Many company bathrooms have removed the lids from toilets so “when they flush, it causes a plume cloud and any virus that was in that stool is now on every surface you can culture, the air ducts, the ceilings, the floors and you,” he says. Dr. Poland suggests waiting until no one else is in the bathroom to use it. Avoid the hand dryers, too, since the forced air “very effectively disseminates virus everywhere,” he says.
Use a paper towel on doorknobs and to turn faucets on and off, too. And, it goes without saying: Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.