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Covid-19: As people return to work, are offices being sanitized the right way?

Employees wear a mask at a startup company, Wednesday Aug.19, 2020 in Paris. France is now mandating masks in all workplaces, from the Paris business district to factories in the provinces. The government is trying to contain growing virus infections but avoid shutting down the economy. The announcement makes France one of relatively few countries that's universally requiring workers to wear masks on the job, though they're routinely worn in many Asian countries. (AP Photo/Michel Euler) (AP)Premium
Employees wear a mask at a startup company, Wednesday Aug.19, 2020 in Paris. France is now mandating masks in all workplaces, from the Paris business district to factories in the provinces. The government is trying to contain growing virus infections but avoid shutting down the economy. The announcement makes France one of relatively few countries that's universally requiring workers to wear masks on the job, though they're routinely worn in many Asian countries. (AP Photo/Michel Euler) (AP)

Disinfecting the workplace is important but needs to be done correctly. And, while design will facilitate physical transformation of the new office space, technology is the ‘glue’

In June this year, commercial real estate services company JLL released a report titled “Future of Workplace: Is it time to reimagine?", which revealed that 66% employees in India had immediately shifted to a work-from-home format in light of the covid-19 pandemic. The report also mentioned how 41% of the employees were also missing the professional environment. More importantly, the report said that ‘health and wellness’ will be a key motivation for employees to “re-enter" the office spaces. Organizations not only need to ensure that employees feel safe, but are also adequately informed, the report adds.

With the Unlock 4.0 exercise right around the corner, more and more offices in India are now opening up with employees returning. Some key questions remain: are offices, workplaces being disinfected properly? Moreover, is this being done too frequently? Following sanitisation practices at the workplace - or even at home - can help protect people against infection, but these are only effective if executed in the right manner.

Do you need to disinfect your workplace frequently?

A common theme among many workplaces is the use of fogging, also known as fumigation or misting, to disinfect areas. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in indoor spaces, applying disinfectants to surfaces via spraying is not recommended for covid-19. If disinfectants are to be applied, these should be done with a cloth or wipe, soaked in the disinfectant.

As per an interim guidance by the WHO on cleaning and disinfection of “environmental surfaces" in the context of covid-19, one study has shown that spraying — as a primary disinfection strategy — is ineffective in removing contaminants outside of the direct spray zones. “Moreover, spraying disinfectants can result in risks to the eyes, respiratory or skin irritation," the guidance adds. In non-healthcare settings, “environmental surfaces" include sinks and toilets, electronic devices (touch screens and controls), furniture and other fixed items like counter tops, stairway rails, floors, walls, door handles etc.

“People think that daily fogging is useful. When in reality, it is not necessarily advantageous. In fact, it might end up being harmful in the long run to the company," says Barun Aggarwal, CEO of indoor air quality solutions provider BreatheEasy Consultants. “I'd only want to do a complete disinfection of the facility when I know that somebody who has tested positive was in the office recently...Then I'd want to run a complete sanitisation or get fogging done to protect everyone else from particles that might have come to surfaces etc," says Aggarwal. “Other than that, there's no need to get sanitisation done on a very frequent basis. What does need to be done, however, is normal hygiene practices of wiping down surfaces," he adds. Aggarwal recommends identifying potential high-touch surfaces in your office area. It is also good to mark ‘hot zones’ for priority disinfection.

In the long run, if you start sterilising too much or living in a completely sterile environment, you could even run the risk of reducing your immunity levels. “The answer is not saying ‘don't sterilise’, but sterilise when the need arises — that’s the key," adds Aggarwal. “Doing this when it’s not needed might lead to bigger problems."

Chemically speaking

Cleaning should always start from the least soiled (cleanest) area to the most soiled (dirtiest) area in order to not spread the dirt to areas that are less soiled, as per recommendations from WHO. Since spraying a surface with a disinfectant is not a full-proof solution, surfaces must first be cleaned with water and soap or a detergent to remove dirt or any other organic matter. This should be followed by disinfection.

“Normally you would use a simple liquid disinfectant — today you might upgrade that to include a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and disinfectant liquid. It's important to use something that is non-abrasive," says Aggarwal.

Chlorine-based chemicals and bleach are often the preferred choice for many as a disinfectant. “You have to be careful when dealing with chlorine-based chemicals. If you spray it on an elevator door, for example, it will start rusting badly if the water used to mix that solution was not clean or diluted properly. A lot of materials, equipment, metal hinges, even computers — if they are not kept away or covered — can get damaged if you do excessive sanitisation with the wrong chemicals," adds Aggarwal.

According to WHO guidelines, in non-health care settings, sodium hypochlorite (bleach or chlorine) can be used at a recommended concentration of 0.1% or 1,000 ppm. Alcohol-based solutions or disinfectants — with 70-90% alcohol — can also be used for surface disinfection.

A teacher sprays disinfectant on a chair following a class at an elementary school in Surprise, Arizona, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Arizona's downward trend of coronavirus cases means parts of the state could meet all three metrics the state's health and education departments set for at least a partial reopening of schools by Labor Day. Schools are not bound by the rules, and some have reopened already, the Associated Press reports. Photographer: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg
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A teacher sprays disinfectant on a chair following a class at an elementary school in Surprise, Arizona, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Arizona's downward trend of coronavirus cases means parts of the state could meet all three metrics the state's health and education departments set for at least a partial reopening of schools by Labor Day. Schools are not bound by the rules, and some have reopened already, the Associated Press reports. Photographer: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

Fixing the air, leveraging technology

There’s now increasing evidence that the novel coronavirus can spread through smaller droplets that can be carried in the form of aerosols — especially in indoor settings. This makes bringing in fresh air to dilute the indoor air all the more crucial. Aggarwal also recommends using low level of drafts for air-conditioning units in offices. “You don't want your air conditioner to be running on full-blast. You want to reduce the fan speed. With the draft, the particles coming from somebody can travel for longer distances," he adds. Aggarwal says that many multi-national companies and organisations are now consciously working on also retrofitting their air-handling units with better filters to be ready for when employees eventually return to the office.

The covid-19 pandemic has now further changed the integration of technology at the workplace. As the JLL report adds, while design will facilitate the physical implementation of changes to the new workplace, technology is the “glue" that will ensure that these necessary changes are incorporated. Voice-enabled technology will be a key facet - this could prevent employees from touching too many surfaces in common areas. This technology could be applied to keyboards, touch screens, light switches, door handles, conference phones, elevator panels etc. Sensors and voice activation devices will also become part of the landscape and part of the design considerations, the JLL report adds.

There will also be increased focus on mobile-based applications. For instance, Indian technology company HCL recently launched a covid-19 risk-management app to help enterprises bring people back to work safely. This app, available on web and mobile, uses data provided by employees and maps it against the latest science and government advice to generate a personal risk profile and guidance for each employee. The app keeps providing dynamic updates to these profiles, alerting users when advice changes.

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