Dr. Soumi Eachempati
Does your office’s return-to-work strategy comply with new CDC environmental regulations?
Updated: Aug 11, 2021
The CDC has just released updated guidelines for employers who are returning their office staff to the workplace. While referencing some previous statements, this update revealed some interesting priorities along with some other basic safety principles.
Like previous statements, the new document again stresses the importance of employers monitoring and documenting the symptoms of their employees. Other language indicates the need to comply with local mandates as certain distinct locales have already given specific rules regarding opening restaurants and other public facilities.
Many of the new guidelines are intuitive and have already been adopted by established return-to-work teams. These basic practices include keeping sick employees at home or those with sick domestic contacts. Other strategies regarding cleaning and disinfecting with bleach or 70% alcohol-containing products are also restated. Other efforts to minimize transmission during commuting are also mentioned as are guidelines on wearing masks in the workplace.
However, in this new set of guidelines the CDC gives major importance to environmental concerns. Many buildings have had minimal occupancy in recent months so emphasis was given to assessing building’s safety prior to any reopening. Lack of habitation can lead to mold, pestilence, rodents, and stagnant water systems which pose serious health risks. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are also particularly mentioned in the new document as needing to be studied for functionality. This feature is as much for personal comfort as it is for safety of the employees.
Ventilation issues represent a major area that is newly addressed. Proper ventilation is needed to keep airflow sufficient and can decrease potential dissemination of infections like Covid-19. The updated document also notes that fresh air and open windows should be utilized whenever possible.
Regarding ventilation, an important consideration for employers in to “generate clean-to-less clear air movement.” This concept essentially maintains that employees should work in “clean” areas and that gradients should be assessed to ensure that high use areas such as reception areas should not propel that same air to other high occupancy areas. To facilitate this effect, the positioning of supply and exhaust air diffusers and/or dampers may be optimized to establish measurable pressure differentials.
The topic of central air filters is specifically addressed. The government recommends mechanical air filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of at least 13 to 14 be used. The basic MERV scale ranges from 1 to 16 and above 13 is thought to capture airborne viruses. Also, the use of portable HEPA filters may be used in high risk facilities to supplement the central air filters. To enhance further germicidal activity, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation can be supplemented.
An important consideration for employers prior to employee move-in is to provide a thorough “hazard assessment” that will delineate the future areas where Covid-19 transmission could occur. This statement links to the OSHA website and illustrates that the federal government considers Covid-19 an occupational hazard. Each employer needs to understand where transmission risks could occur in seating arrangements, conference rooms, and areas of congregation for different groups including janitorial staff and relief employees. Plans should be clearly identified for to manage contractors and other transient personnel.
After identification of the potential transmission hazards, employers need to create physical separations of the recommended 6 feet between employees. Notably, the CDC also suggested using signs, tape, and other visual clues to delineate this distance clearly. Other methods on removing potential hazards include “high-touch” communal items such as coffee pots, water coolers, and bulk snacks and replacing them with pre-packaged, single-serving items.
Overall, these new guidelines create a welcome set of environmental mandates that will enhance worker safety after returning to work. Adherence to these principles with a well-crafted symptom monitoring strategy containing proper documentation will lead employers in the right direction as they prepare their offices and factories for their workers.