How Can I Avoid Catching Coronavirus at the Office?
An infectious disease expert explains how to keep you and your coworkers safe from coronavirus if you're returning to your work office.
If you used to work in an office and have been been working remotely due to Covid-19, you may be anxiously (or nervously) awaiting the call to come back in. In the U.S., states are starting to open back up and lift restrictions. Some are already allowing office workers to return—although sometimes with capacity restrictions.
If you’re immunocompromised or at high risk for catching coronavirus due to age or other health conditions, talk to your doctor, your boss, and your human resources department to work out a safe plan for your individual situation. But if you’re healthy and planning on going back, it can be confusing or seem complicated when it comes to trying to avoid catching coronavirus while in an enclosed space with your coworkers.
Prepare for the workday
Although there are measures your building and your company will be taking to keep you safe, you’ll need to take on part of the responsibility yourself—so get used to wearing a face mask. “Everyone should wear a cloth face cover at work except while eating,” says Patricia Whitley-Williams, MD, professor of pediatrics and chief of the division of pediatric allergy, immunology, and infectious diseases at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. If you don’t have one, you should buy or make your own face mask. In addition, “face shields can also be used and worn over the cloth face cover,” she says. (Here are the best face masks for teachers heading back to the classroom.)
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it’s less likely that Covid-19 will enter through your eyes than your nose or mouth, a June 2020 study published in The Lancet has shown that eye protection may lower your risk further.
But you can skip the gloves: The CDC doesn’t recommend them unless they’re a normal part of your working environment, as you will likely still touch your face with the gloves on. Plus, unless you’re changing them all the time, you can spread germs around. And taking your gloves off properly is hard, even if you’re in the medical field: One pre-Covid-19 January 2019 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found nearly 40 percent of healthcare workers wearing gloves contaminated themselves while removing them.
Wash your hands all the time
Gloves may give you a false sense of security and prevent you from doing the number one thing you can do to protect against Covid-19. “Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place [like if you came from outside], or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing,” Dr. Whitley-Williams says. And make sure you’re washing your hands the right way.
“If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol,” Dr. Whitley-Williams says. “Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.” It’s likely that your workplace will provide hand sanitizer, but you could bring your own for your private use as well.
In addition, “avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands,” Dr. Whitley-Williams says. The virus can’t get into your body through your hands themselves, but rather because people touch their face with contaminated hands, according to the CDC.
Avoid sharing phones and other office equipment
The CDC advises to avoid sharing other employees’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools. If it’s necessary, though, in between uses make sure to “disinfect shared keyboards, telephones, and any other shared equipment,” Dr. Whitley-Williams says.
It’s also a good idea to disinfect your own desk, she says, just in case someone else has touched it. If you have to share office equipment, like the copier, remember to properly wash your hands after. It’s not always easy to remember, but will help prevent you from getting sick.
Find out your office’s rules
That open-concept office that was all the rage in recent years may now be a thing of the past. Your building or company may have already taken measures to ensure six feet of social distancing between workspaces, because the virus most often spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets.
That might mean having desks further apart, rearranging them, or putting up partitions to avoid the chance that one worker’s exhaled respiratory droplets might be inhaled by someone else. (The droplets tend to drop out of the air so distance helps).
Dr. Whitley-Williams recommends that companies add work barriers and desk-top shields to help keep workers safe. Depending on state regulations, your company may also have to adhere to lower occupancy rules. This might mean “staggering shifts and breaks,” Dr. Whitley-Williams says.
So even if you return to work, it might be a gradual few days a week, with the rest of the time telecommuting.
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Avoid close chats with co-workers
For many people, the office is a source of socialization, but unfortunately, that might have to be curtailed in the wake of the pandemic.
“Do not gather in groups, and stay at least six feet apart from other people,” Dr. Whitley-Williams says. Those collaborative in-person meetings may have to wait, too. “Use virtual meeting rooms if people cannot stand six feet apart in a physical meeting space or conference room,” she says.
And even though you may be glad to see coworkers or clients, the CDC still recommends that you avoid shaking hands. The CDC also recommends making use of any outdoor spaces where social distancing can be maintained.
Be careful with food
You may also have to avoid a lunch break with your coworkers—especially since you can’t use a face mask while eating and you’ll have to maintain social distancing. “Wash your hands before eating at work,” Dr. Whitley-Williams says. “Disinfect the surface or table before placing food down.”
The safest option is likely to bring your own food and utensils. The microwave, which probably has a lot of people touching the buttons, is shared equipment, so avoid it or follow the precautions above for shared objects. The CDC also recommends your employer nix other “high touch” items like coffee pots and water coolers.
Although food that’s delivered or taken out is likely safe according to the CDC, ask your company about their policy on food deliveries, and where they should be left in order to have the least amount of contact. (This is how to dine out safely at restaurants.)
Use caution in the bathroom
You can’t hold it all day—nor is it healthy to do so. As with any other public restrooms, though, you should maintain social distance and spend as little time in there as possible (so no more lingering on the toilet in order to take a break away from your desk).
Your office or building may also have new policies to keep people further apart in bathrooms (like taping off some sinks and urinals), and more stringent or frequent cleaning procedures as well. And of course, wash your hands after using the bathroom and handling high-touch surfaces like stall doors and locks.
Stay home if you have symptoms
The CDC and OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) are encouraging employers to tell their workers to stay home if they have signs of a respiratory infection—without incurring repercussions.
“If you are sick, stay home,” Dr. Whitley-Williams says. In addition, in case you need any further reason to stay away from that coughing coworker, “avoid close contact with people who are sick,” she says.
Communicate with your employer if you have questions on new sick leave policies, and maybe even offer solutions, like offering to telecommute if you think you might be coming down with something but aren’t sure. This new attitude toward staying home may involve changing your workplace culture, but it’s one important measure to prevent an outbreak in your office. (These are the coronavirus symptoms everyone should watch for.)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Resuming Business Toolkit"
- CDC/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: "Hierarchy of Controls"
- Patricia Whitley-Williams, MD, professor of pediatrics and chief of the division of pediatric allergy, immunology, and infectious diseases at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey
- CDC: "How COVID-19 Spreads"
- The Lancet: "Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis"
- CDC: "When to Wear Gloves"
- CDC: "How to Remove Gloves"
- American Journal of Infection Control: "Contamination of health care personnel during removal of contaminated gloves"
- OSHA: "COVID-19 Guidance on Social Distancing at Work"
- CDC: "General Business Frequently Asked Questions"
- CDC: "COVID-19 Employer Information for Office Buildings"
- CDC: "COVID-19: Frequently Asked Questions"
- NPR: "Fear Of Public Restrooms Prompts Creative Solutions As Some Businesses Reopen"
- CDC: "Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes"