With the likelihood that at some point this year more people will be coming back to the “office” more often - particularly those returning from a prolonged period of remote/home working - reassurance is going to be high on their agenda that the environments they are going to be working in are safe.

Legitimate or otherwise, people will have concerns, so the communication and messaging around returning to work will be vital in establishing both confidence and reassurance. Already we are starting to receive questions from customers and others on a range of
“re-remobilisation” topics.

Recognising and having in place answers and/or solutions to them will be key

  1. Will my colleagues really respect the social distancing?
  2. Will air conditioning spread the virus?
  3. Is it safe to travel to the office?
  4. Could flushing the toilets at work really spread COVID-19?
  5. Will I have to wear a face covering when I go back to work?

1. Will my colleagues really respect the social distancing?

The requirements for COVID-19 Secure means assessing and controlling the risk of transmission of the virus in your workplace by way of a risk assessment. The guidance documents focus on key controls and advice to maintaining social distancing and hygiene as we remobilise.

In documenting your risk assessment, you should consider what work you can do safely and what measures are needed to reduce risk. If you have more than 50 employees, there is still an expectation to publish your risk assessment on your website.

It is important to remember that the guidance has been updated regularly and your COVID-19 risk assessment needs ongoing review against the guidance and current local or national restrictions. This is particularly vital in the process of building staff’s confidence in how the system is working.

A review of the procedures, and visible review of behaviours in your workplace should help to encourage good practices. Any changes made through this process must be shared with your staff, and this will only help to further strengthen that confidence.

2. Will air conditioning spread the virus?

We have seen many articles in the press lately over concerns about the workplace and air quality, you only have to Google ‘air quality and COVID-19’ and many questions are raised.

The reality is though that a well-managed air system is unlikely to provide a virus a suitable environment to survive. As detailed on the HSE website, ‘Good ventilation reduces the concentration of the virus in the air and therefore reduces the risks from airborne transmission. This happens when people breathe in small particles (aerosols) in the air after someone with the virus has occupied an enclosed area. However, ventilation will have little or no impact on droplet or contact transmission routes.’

  • To reduce any risks consider avoiding, where you can, recirculating air through your building from the main air handling system. However, be aware of the consequential effect reducing the amount of recirculating air may have on, for example, temperature control. In the winter months, some recirculation may be acceptable, if it means there is a greater overall ventilation rate without causing thermal discomfort to your occupants.
  • Secondary systems (e.g. fan coil units) can remain switched on provided the areas have a good fresh air ventilation supply (either natural or mechanical). The action of these units will help to de-stratify the air, reducing the chances for pockets of stagnant air, and can help contribute to the overall dilution of airborne virus particles. If, however, there is very little fresh outside air ventilation (either natural or mechanical), then the advice is to switch off the unit.
  • Also check/inspect your heating and/or chilling batteries/coils and extract and return air grilles to make sure they are operating correctly, clean and free of any blockages and or restrictions.
  • Be sure to let your people know about all the steps that you have taken to provide their workplace with the maximum amount of fresh air. Their minds will be put at ease knowing that extra measures have been put in place for their safety and benefit.
  • Reassurance air quality testing can be completed to provide further independent reassurance on the system conditions.

3. Is it safe to travel to the office?

As we continue to navigate our way through this pandemic, public transport remains a primary route for many, and a potential concern for some. Whilst the responsibility of the individual is to assess their own risks and follow all available guidance and requirements, you as the employer could consider allowing variations. Maybe consider staggering working hours to help to reduce pressure on rush hour transportation systems.

If you are also fortunate to have on-site parking, perhaps consider a rota system for employees to provide a further option of safe travel throughout the week.

4. Could flushing the toilets at work really spread COVID-19?

It has been suggested that a possible route of virus transmission could be the ‘faecal-oral’ route (as COVID-19 viruses have been detected in stool samples).

Flushing toilets with open lids can create a plume of droplets and an associated droplet residue. So, potentially this could be a localised means of transmitting contaminated droplets into the local environment and adjacent surfaces. Although this is still not an established transmission route for COVID-19, there are a number of simple measures you could take to control possible faecal-oral transmission of the virus – these will also prove more effective for other viruses (e.g. noroviruses) too.

  • Where possible, you can encourage staff to flush toilets with the lid closed, thereby reducing droplet plumes being created and so minimising any potential faecal-oral transmission of virus particles.
  • Keep your toilet extract systems maintained and operational, this will make sure that contaminants are efficiently removed from the airspace within your toilets.
  • Consider bypassing any controls on your extract system (if you can without affecting other systems) and operating them continuously during occupation of the building.
  • Try to maintain negative air pressure in the toilets, this keeps smells as well as any generated contaminants out of adjacent areas.
  • Keep the plumbing systems well maintained and preserving water seals (by stopping the drains drying out), this will reduce any chances of contaminants being transmitted through the building’s soil stack pipework.

5. Will I have to wear a face covering when I go back to work?

There are some environments where you currently must wear a face covering by law (unless you are exempt or have a reasonable excuse). These include indoor settings such as shops and shopping centres, post offices, banks, building societies, exhibitions and conference halls and storage and distribution facilities.

While therefore it is not mandatory in all workplaces some organisations are implementing face coverings as a control measure within their buildings. In some cases, masks are to be worn for the whole time, in other cases, only when navigating through common areas of the building.

The use of masks will depend on your COVID-19 risk assessment, the best ways of managing the risks are social distancing, hand hygiene and surface cleansing, however, there may be some situations in which wearing a face covering may be beneficial as a control measure.

At a time when more of us may make the decision to head back to the office, it is important to review your risk assessment to confirm your current control measures are still suitable for your workplace.

Further help on these and other topics can also be found at:

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19
https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/index.htm
https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/working-safely/risk-assessment.htm
https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/working-safely/index.htm
https://www.assurityconsulting.co.uk/services/covid-19-risk-management
https://www.assurityconsulting.co.uk/services/indoor-air-quality
https://www.assurityconsulting.co.uk/knowledge/white-papers

Assurity Consulting is the UK’s leading independent consultancy specialising in workplace health, safety and environmental solutions. As your partner in compliance management you will reap the benefit of our more than 30 years’ experience of helping customers across a range of different sectors – manage their compliance responsibilities as effectively as possible. If you need any help with your health, safety or environmental compliance, or if you would like more information on the services Assurity Consulting offer, please get in touch.

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