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Six Feet of Separation in Reopening Offices Won’t Stop Virus

May 12, 2020, 6:50 PM

Reopening offices shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic won’t be as simple as moving chairs, cleaning carpets, and unlocking doors, workplace health and building management specialists are warning.

Businesses face a range of challenges to prevent the spread of the coronavirus causing Covid-19 disease as workplaces begin to reopen—from figuring out how to change air circulation patterns to deciding the fate of the community coffee pot.

But few Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules directly apply to offices, and voluntary guidance from government agencies has been sparse, said David Krause, principal toxicologist at Healthcare Contracting and Consulting Services in Tallahassee, Fla., and the co-author of new guidance from the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

“It’s not going to be, ‘Just go back to work,’” said Krause, who volunteered with other industrial health specialists to write guidance on reopening businesses and workplaces, some of which is specific to certain industries. The AIHA published the guidance online.

Building management companies also are publishing their own guides, in part to show regulators the precautions and practices that will be in place when office buildings open their doors, said Henry Chamberlain, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association International in Washington.

Water and Air

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s general guidance calling for at least six feet between workers could necessitate big changes, not only in how offices are physically laid out but in scheduling, said John Henshaw, another AIHA co-author who oversaw OSHA during the first term of the Bush administration.

Antonia Cardone, who has been looking at the future of office designs as a senior managing director at real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield, said making room for separating workers may not be a huge challenge if employers allow most of their staffs to decide if they want to work from home or the office.

Stay-at-home orders showed most office employees can do their assignments at home, Cardone said. Cushman & Wakefield’s recommendations for office design and reopening are detailed in a 34-page guide “Recovery Readiness.”

During the initial phase of reopening an office building, Chamberlain said he would expect at most 30% of the old capacity to be used.

Henshaw cautioned that six feet between workers or cubicles won’t deter the coronavirus from being spread by air circulation systems.

Most office buildings’ air circulation motors aren’t powerful enough to pull air through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that could capture some toxins, said Krause. Portable air filtering systems may help but could create noise problems and also require regular maintenance and cleaning.

Then there are building utilities. One early priority, Krause said, is ensuring that bacteria or mold didn’t grow in water pipes or ventilation systems when buildings were closed. Stagnant water can breed the bacteria responsible for Legionnaire’s disease, and water filters could have become toxin breeding grounds, he said.

Work areas must be inspected for any water leaks that may have occurred but gone undetected, and refrigerators and ice makers need thorough cleanings, he said.

Chamberlain didn’t foresee significant issues because building engineers would have kept water and other utilities in operation. “The office buildings never closed, they just went to minimal occupancy,” Chamberlain said.

Concerns About Common Areas

Break rooms to restrooms present their own issues.

Lobbies may need monitors to limit the number of people boarding elevators at one time, Cardone said. One design solution is marking where people must stand on elevator floors.

The AIHA recommended modifying building doors for hands-free opening and closing instead of forcing people to turn knobs or grab levers.

In restrooms, AIHA recommended installing no-touch water spigots, urinals, and toilets. Hot-air hand dryers should be disabled and workers provided with paper towels.

Cardone identified restroom entrances as a particular concern, since they often crowd workers together. Correcting that could require remodeling entry points.

Break rooms could become deserted. The AIHA recommended discouraging people from lingering in common areas or offering food for sharing.

Office kitchen areas should be cleaned and disinfected on a daily basis, at minimum, the AIHA said. However, coffee machines, refrigerator handles, and ice machine handles should be disinfected at least three times per day. The outside of dishwashers should be cleaned at the beginning and end of each shift, it said.

Cleaning Away Hazards

Paul Bedborough, chief executive of C&W Services, the building maintenance and janitorial subsidiary of the real estate company, said new cleaning protocols are required for the “new abnormalcy.” The company is taking the temperature of maintenance and janitorial personnel at the start of the workday to reduce the chance of viral exposure, he said.

Before reopening closed floors or suites, a thorough disinfection going beyond dust and dirt removal is needed, Bedborough said. Some common cleaning methods, such as air ionization to improve air quality, won’t kill viruses but methods such as electrostatic cleaning, which involves spraying a mist of electronically charged disinfectants onto surfaces, can kill them in minutes, he said.

More cleaning means office workers, not janitorial staff, may take on cleaning duties and will need to be trained on practices and hazards, said Henshaw. Office staff could be responsible for cleaning conference rooms after each use, clearing and cleaning their own desks after each workday, and wiping down equipment and adjacent work areas.

Employers will have to train workers on the risks of disinfectants and cleaners, Henshaw said. OSHA’s hazard communications standards (29 C.F.R. 1910.1200) specify the training needed. Workers, he said, should be told about the office’s protective requirements before reporting back, and again when they arrive.

In terms of personal practices, employees should wash their hands after arriving at work; anytime after touching their face, mask, or a common contact surface; and again when leaving, according to AIHA.

The AIHA guidance doesn’t call for mandatory, constant use of face masks. However, it recommends that employers provide face coverings or encourage their use if a six-foot distance can’t be achieved.

Employees, too, should consistently evaluate their health. If they or someone in their home is sick, they shouldn’t go to the office, AIHA said. Employers should expect workers to be nervous when returning to their workplace, but employees may also be relieved to see obvious changes that take distancing and cleanliness into consideration.

“My mantra is we’ve got to be safe and feel safe,” said Henshaw.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com, Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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