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The Covid Office: What Might it Look Like?

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Office personnel between sneeze guards at the Covid-19 officeMany companies have been shut down as a result of Covid-19 or have sent their employees home to remote work. Employees may be wondering about what to expect when they return to the Covid-19 office and what the company should be doing to keep them safe. There are so many guidelines and suggestions for what companies should be doing, it is hard to glean what companies might actually enact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage sends readers to many different pages and sources including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website such that someone could bounce around for a long time and still not figure out what needs to be done. 

Not only that, but the recommendations are constantly changing and being updated. However, there are some areas of the country, like Los Angeles, CA, that have put together an easier to use toolkit to help businesses reopen. (4) Of course there are variations for the requirements between the different areas of the country as every local and state government have their own requirements but these are some things that are common amongst all the guidelines. OSHA and the CDC both recommend that companies develop a response plan for the event of a Covid-19 case in the workplace as well as for minimizing the risk of transmitting Covid-19 at the office. 

Basic preventions for the Covid-19 office

For minimizing the risk of transmission, the majority of recommendations include the following basic prevention actions:

  • Individuals with symptoms to be sent home. Any individual that has symptoms should not come to the office. If they arrive at the office, then they should be separated from the remaining personnel and sent home, preferably with a face mask if they weren’t already wearing one.
  • Enhanced cleaning measures, which may include cleaning of all common surfaces including door handles, light switches, tables, chairs, printers, etc. Any surface that more than one person touches is recommended to be cleaned multiple times a day and may require hiring additional cleaning services in order to accommodate the additional requirements including using cleaning products that are evaluated by the CDC to kill the virus.
  • Safety screenings, which may require self-screening prior to the individual coming into the office or as personnel arrive. The screenings may consist of a questionnaire asking about who they may have had contact with or if they have had any symptoms. Additionally, there may be a temperature check. These screenings do contain medical information and therefore fall under HIPAA and therefore the information must be kept confidential. Additionally, all screenings must be performed to meet the requirements of all anti-discrimination laws.
  • Good hygiene will be required. Washing hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes, and using hand sanitizer with greater than 60% alcohol when hand washing is not an option will be the norm. Additionally, more time during breaks to properly wash hands may be granted. Wherever possible, touchless dispensers and individual prepackaged items for break rooms will likely be used.
  • Facial coverings. It is strongly recommended that all individuals wear face masks in public, but it is not mandated everywhere so this action will be on a case by case basis depending on local requirements and how the company chooses to take action. Other PPE may be provided such as gloves, goggles, face shields, etc. but that will be the company deciding on a case by case basis depending on the work and tasks.
  • Evaluation of airflow and filtration systems to increase filtration rate, decrease particle size or increase ventilation rates. Not every office will have control of this measure.
  • Training for all new policies that the employees are expected to follow. Training should occur preferably prior to returning to the office, but in the event that is not possible, training should be provided on site as soon as the protocols are enacted.
  • Social distancing, which may come in a variety of forms. Personnel will be required to maintain a minimum of six feet from each other, wherever possible, which might include any or all of the following, though this list is not complete. Each office will have to evaluate their own space for what is feasible and what can be done. 
    • Desks, tables, chairs in break rooms to be arranged a minimum of six feet between where each person sits.
    • Reducing the capacity of the office by utilizing flexible work shifts, staggered meal and break periods, encouraging continued remote work, instituting specific capacities in any given space. A conference may have held 15 people in the pre-Covid-19 world, but now has a maximum capacity of five people.
    • One way traffic flows to minimize personnel passing each other. In the event that pathways do not allow one way flow, then arrows could be placed to show that one direction is on a specific side of the pathway.
    • Additional plastic shields or guards may be installed. For example, if the office has a reception desk that was previously open to all incoming traffic, a plastic guard around the desk to protect the receptionist may be installed. Other examples are sneeze guards on conference tables or office desks to provide additional barriers between personnel.
    • Encouragement of not commuting or not taking public transportation as well as minimizing travel. While this is not feasible for every office or individual, the reduction of contact with unknown people does reduce the risk of contracting the virus.
    • Encouragement of virtual meetings or limiting the time frame that in person meetings can occur. The less time spent in person, the lower the risk of transmission.
    • Signage for office requirements will be placed strategically around the office on walls and floors that could include the following. The CDC has provided some great options that are easy to print on their site. Example signage can include maximum capacity; appropriate greetings like waves or elbow bumps; hand washing techniques and frequency; floor signs or tape indicating six foot distances; facial covering requirements; cleaning requirements; etc.

 

sanitzing hands by computer at the Covid-19 office

Covid-19 case at the office

As noted, each office will have to evaluate their own actions and how they will implement the recommendations and the local and state requirements. That being said, these precautions will likely not stop all cases of Covid-19 from entering the workspace; they only minimize the risk. In the event of someone arriving with symptoms or someone testing positive, the person should be separated and sent home. According to the CDC, if the person is believed to have Covid-19 or has tested positive, it is typically not necessary to close up shop. If the individual was there less than seven days prior, then the company should close that area, give it at least 24 hours to allow any respiratory droplets to settle onto surfaces, and then perform a full deep cleaning of that area. Wherever possible, windows should be opened to increase air circulation through the area.

Additionally, after the individual has been identified, contract tracing should begin. The potentially Covid-19 individual should be interviewed, typically by human resources or the safety personnel, so that the company can determine with whom that individual has been in contact. As in the case of medical screening and questions above, all interviews and medical information must remain confidential in accordance with HIPAA regulations. Accordingly, when the company does identify personnel that the individual has been in contact with, then the company can only disclose that the person they are talking to has been in contact with someone who has tested positive or has been deemed to be potentially positive for Covid-19. In no way are they allowed to share the name or any specifics that would cause the person to be identified. All medical related issues are protected under HIPAA and must remain confidential. Accordingly, if you are the individual who has tested positive for Covid-19, then you should expect that confidentiality and deviations are a violation of the law.

As someone who has been potentially exposed, you may be requested to self-monitor and if there is a clear close contact, you may be requested to self-quarantine. If you have contracted Covid-19 and are required to self-quarantine, you may be protected under the CARES Act and may be eligible for pay or disability leave. In addition to federal protections, there are potentially state and local benefits that may be applicable to you. You should review your local benefits to find out more information. 

Regardless of the company, you, as an employee, should expect your company to implement reasonable protections to keep you safe in the Covid-19 office. If you feel that you are not being properly protected, you should contact your local human resources or union representative to request further information.

Read more about how another industry is working to protect their personnel with the post-covid production experience and safe way forward.