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Re-Opening Your Workplace? Consider These Health and Safety Precautions

As the economy slowly reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, employers are planning how to safely bring their employees back to work. The Ontario government has published sector-specific guidelines, which employers can review and incorporate into their plans. However, every workplace is different, and guidelines cannot be applied mechanically. It’s important for employers to understand how COVID-19 spreads, so that they can plan effectively to protect their employees’ health.
Of course, I’m an employment lawyer, not an epidemiologist or an infectious disease expert, but I’ve been reading and listening to the experts’ advice and thinking about how to apply it to an area in which I work: occupational health and safety.

Dr. Erin Bromage, a biology and infectious diseases professor at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, has written an informative, reader-friendly summary of COVID-19 research, including links to several underlying studies. In short, COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets. Droplets from normal breathing will fall to the ground quickly, but coughing or sneezing can spread it farther. So, apparently, can air circulation systems: an infected person at a restaurant in China infected several people who were eating “downwind” of him in the path of the restaurant’s air conditioning system, even though their table was more than 2 metres away.

The risk of infection also depends on how long you’re exposed to the virus. In a Korean call centre, 94 people who worked on the same floor as an infected person became infected themselves, but only 3 people were infected in the entire rest of the building. Staying two metres apart may protect you when passing an infected person on the street, but not when working with them for 8 hours in a building with recirculated air.

Finally, the risk also depends on the amount of virus you’re exposed to. Research shows that people release or “shed” the most virus in the day or two before they develop symptoms. Even though they aren’t coughing or sneezing yet, they release enough virus through talking and heavy breathing to spread the disease. Since yelling releases more droplets than regular talk, loud work environments where people are shouting to be heard are at higher risk.

What does this mean for employers? It means that it’s not enough to keep employees 2 metres apart and have them sanitize their hands often. It’s also not enough to ask sick employees to stay home, since the virus spreads more before symptoms start than after. In addition to those basic precautions, employers must also assess their individual work environments for risk factors such as airflow, number of people around, activities such as face-to-face talking/yelling or heavy breathing, and length of time that people are together. Here are a few possible precautions to consider:

  • limiting the number of people in the workplace by allowing those who are able to continue working from home
  • reducing the amount of time each employee spends in the workplace, e.g., working half-days at work and half-days from home
  • ensuring proper ventilation and airflow, and minimizing air recirculation
  • requiring employees to wear masks
  • positioning employees significantly more than 2 metres apart
  • positioning employees to minimize “downwind” exposure from ventilation systems
  • avoiding face-to-face talking (or worse, yelling) and instead having verbal conversations by telephone or radio
  • directing employees to take phone calls in a separate room
  • if in-person meetings are necessary, holding them outdoors.

With proper precautions, we can reduce the spread of COVID-19 even as we start to get back to work.