An integrated approach to safely reoccupy workplaces

In order to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19, a customised plan to return to workplaces should be unique to each building.

As the world slowly navigates the treatment of, and recovery from, the COVID-19 pandemic, the next phase must address a long-anticipated solution – the solution on how to safely reclaim and re-open our businesses and buildings, which have been shuttered as never before.

The uncommon nature of this pandemic necessitates a plan to address many questions and challenges on the precise methods for returning employees, visitors, customers and the public to our buildings. The plan must employ a calculated and well thought-out strategy, customised to meet each unique building population and configuration in the community.

Solutions must be initiated by business leaders in conjunction with expertise from the environmental health, safety and risk control industries to develop a comprehensive re-occupancy infection control and prevention program. These experts include industrial hygienists, health and safety professionals, HVAC engineers, architects and perhaps, construction experts. Each provides a specific area of expertise and works to develop and implement an all-encompassing approach to getting back to work.

The first step in the development of such a plan is the integration of solutions to address both people and buildings. This includes identifying the building populations and risk profile for each group, and designing building-specific solutions focused on those exposure risks. For example, a building’s custodial staff has a higher risk than a causal office worker.

A successful re-occupancy infection control and prevention program must encompass the following three main integrated areas of focus to minimise transmission of the virus:

Deep cleaning

First, the plan should include an industrial hygiene solution to address and manage:

  1. The appropriate building disinfection and sterilisation technologies, procedures and applicability
  2. Proper Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)
  3. Screening/monitoring the health of building occupants and guests
  4. Responding to any incidents of building occupants who have subsequently contracted the virus
  5. Education and training for facilities management staff

Simply equipping every building occupant and visitor with the appropriate respiratory and other personal protection will not be sufficient enough. PPE is an important and practical defence against workplace hazards, but OSHA and the industrial hygiene community consider PPE the last line of defence. Engineering controls (i.e., disinfection cleaning, ventilation and architectural distancing) and workplace procedures and administrative controls (i.e., methods used to eliminate or reduce a hazard) must always be considered first. The hazard is the exposure to the virus microorganism; the transfer mechanisms are considered high touch surfaces, personal close contact and possibly, and airborne transmission. All of these exposure pathways must be considered.

It has been determined with certainty that, while cleaning and sanitising buildings is part of the solution, it is, by itself, not enough. There are various options and different applicable technologies available based on the type of facility and its operations. Any effective program, therefore, must address managing the touch-to-touch transmission, disinfecting or sterilising the spaces, and keeping buildings clean going forward.

There is also a great deal of confusion as to whom should be conducting the cleaning, the correct methods and the chemicals to be used. A disinfection protocol should be included in the re-occupancy plan. The workers conducting the cleaning must be trained and protected. Only cleaning products and procedures recommended by the Australian Government should be utilised. Many organisations are incorrectly wet wiping, fogging or cleaning with an aerosol delivery method.

Lastly, the disinfection protocol must address initial cleaning, on-going maintenance cleaning and a response plan if an occupant tests positive after returning to the workplace.

Infrastructure concerns

Second, the plan must include an HVAC engineered solution to help cleanse, dilute and kill the airborne virus particles.

Each building has its own HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system. These vary greatly between building type, use and age. However, there are current standards for indoor air quality and a building’s ventilation system can be utilised as part of the solution. This solution should include protocols that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recently developed for the World Health Organization.

Social distancing protocols

Third, the plan must include an architectural and social partitioning solution, in which facilities’ managers and architects translate and expand the current social distancing recommendations into executable protocols, building elements and behavioural practices for all workers and visitors.

Social distancing needs to be more than a voluntary request to maintain a 1.5 meter separation, but architectural changes may not be practical in all building settings. To accomplish this, space planning, workflow, partitioning, signage and possible new interior construction must be defined and implemented.

As restrictions lift and businesses prepare to re-open, developing a comprehensive re-occupancy infection control and prevention program can be the best line of defence. An integrated approach led by a multi-disciplined team of experts can safely re-open buildings and facilities, and as a result, help return employees, customers and the public alike to the next phase of working post COVID-19.

Do you need help returning to business as usual following the coronavirus outbreak? Our Return to Work Services can offer the support you need.

Visit our COVID-19 Resource Centre for more useful information and contact us to learn more about the many services we offer.

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The information contained herein is offered as risk and claims management industry guidance and provided as an overview of current market risks and available programs and is intended for discussion purposes only. This publication is not intended to offer legal advice or client-specific risk management advice. General descriptions contained herein do not include complete definitions, terms, and/or conditions, and should not be relied on for claims management interpretation. Actual claims and risk management policies must always be consulted for full coverage details and analysis.

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