Updated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for reopening offices during the COVID-19 pandemic include wearing cloth masks throughout the workday; maintaining social distances of six feet, including in elevators; positioning workstations six feet apart or installing plastic partitions; and removing communal coffeepots.
The updated employer information page supplements guideline established in the CDC’s interim guidance for businesses and employers responding to coronavirus disease 2019. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 currently is widespread in most U.S. communities and considered a workplace hazard.
CDC recommended employers, building owners and managers, and building operations specialists take steps to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, starting by reviewing the interim guidance. The centers go on to suggest:
- Creating a COVID-19 workplace health and safety plan;
- Checking that the building is ready for occupancy, before resuming business operations, including ensuring that ventilation systems in the facility operate properly, reviewing start-up guidance in ASHRAE Standard 180-2018, Standard Practice for the Inspection and Maintenance of Commercial Building HVAC Systems, if necessary;
- Evaluating the building’s mechanical and life safety systems; checking for hazards associated with prolonged facility shutdown such as mold growth, rodents or other pests, or issues with stagnant water systems, and taking appropriate remedial actions;
- Increasing circulation of outdoor air as much as possible by opening windows and doors, using fans, and other methods;
- Conducting a thorough hazard assessment of the workplace to identify potential workplace hazards that could increase risks for COVID-19 transmission; and
- Developing and implementing a hierarchy of hazard controls, including engineering and administrative controls, as well as, education and training covering topics like signs and symptoms of infection, staying home when ill, social distancing, personal protective equipment, hand hygiene practices, potential routes of transmission at work, at home, and in the community.
Engineering, Administrative Controls
CDC’s recommended engineering controls that include modifying furniture and workstations, making changes to the office environment to ensure physical distancing, and improving ventilation, intended to isolate workers from infection hazards.
Employers should separate and move workstations to maintain social distancing of six feet between employees or install transparent shields or other physical barriers where social distancing is not an option. Chairs in reception or communal seating areas should be, turned, draped, or covered with tape or fabric so seats cannot be used or removed entirely.
Employers should take steps physically separate employees in all areas of the facility, including work areas, meeting rooms, break rooms, parking lots, entrance and exit areas, and locker rooms. Employers can use signs, tape marks, or other visual cues such as decals or colored tape on the floor, placed 6 feet apart, to indicate where to stand when physical barriers are not possible.
High-touch communal items, such as coffee pots, water coolers, and bulk snacks, should be replaced with pre-packaged, single-serving items.
CDC recommended offices take several steps to improve ventilation in office buildings, including:
- Increasing the percentage of outdoor air in indoor spaces, potentially as high as 100% and consider using natural ventilation like opening windows if possible and safe to do so to increase outdoor air dilution of indoor air when environmental conditions and building requirements allow;
- Increasing total airflow supply to occupied spaces, if possible;
- Disabling demand-control ventilation (DCV) controls that reduce air supply based on temperature or occupancy;
- Improve central air filtration, increase air filtration as high as possible, to Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 or 14, if possible, and inspecting filter housing and racks to ensure appropriate filter fit and checking for ways to minimize filter bypass;
- Consider using portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) fan/filtration systems to help enhance air cleaning or ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI);
- Ensuring exhaust fans in restroom facilities are functional and operating at full capacity when the building is occupied; and
- Generating clean-to-less-clean air movement, by re-evaluating the positioning of supply and exhaust air diffusers and/or dampers and adjusting zone supply and exhaust flow rates to establish measurable pressure differentials.
Suggested administrative controls have been discussed in previous CDC and Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) guidelines and include cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces with EPA-approved products; performing symptom and/or temperature checks when employees arrive; encouraging employees with symptoms of COVID-19 or who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 to notify their supervisor and stay home; and staggering work shifts, start times, and break times to reduce the density of employees in common areas such as break rooms, and locker rooms, and screening areas.
CDC also recommended discouraging employees from carpooling or using public transit, suggesting employers could offer reimbursement for parking fees or single-occupant rides with rideshare services.