How Safe Is It to Return to the Office?
As we progress into summer after months of being on a pandemic-related lockdown, is your boss suddenly expecting to see you back at your desk—this week?! Or, perhaps you are the boss and want your employees to return to work in order to get back to business as usual. Either way, having successfully “flattened the curve” only to see a rapid resurgence in COVID-19 cases shortly after businesses began to reopen in May, you might be wondering if it is actually safe to return to the office.
Unfortunately, as the concept of safety is both subjective and relative, there is not a simple yes-or-no answer. Additionally, not all businesses have the same means with which to implement safety measures that would make returning to the workplace reasonable. So, while it may or may not be safe to return to the office—depending on your specific set of circumstances—we will examine how safe (relatively speaking) it is to head back to the office under optimal conditions. Below are three aspects which we consider critical to consider when evaluating how safe it is to return to your office.
Is your office following federal guidelines for reopening?
In order for businesses to make returning to the office as safe as possible, federal guidelines for reopening have been established. Multiple government agencies and entities have contributed detailed instructions on how to make workplaces safe to return to while minimizing the potential for spreading the novel coronavirus. Some of the recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include:
- Altering workspaces to promote social distancing, including configuring partitions to act as barrier shields
- Regularly cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
- Providing employees with cleaners, sprays and disposable disinfectant wipes which are effective against the virus that causes COVID-19
- Providing employees with appropriate PPE and training to ensure the equipment is used properly
- Improving the building’s ventilation system
- Implementing daily health checks
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), some other important measures business should take to make reopening safe include:
- Discouraging employees from using other worker’s tools, equipment, and/or office space—including phones and desks
- Development of policies and procedures for identifying and isolating sick people
- Development of an infectious disease preparedness and response plan
- Following existing OSHA standards, even though non-specific to SARS-CoV-2, which could prevent occupational exposure to the disease.
If your office reopens with all of the various safety precautions properly in place, a good argument could be made for your workplace being even safer than it was before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Note: OSHA’s occupational risk pyramid for COVID-19 defines four different levels of risk based on a worker’s likelihood of exposure to the virus. It should go without saying that a frontline healthcare worker—considered high to very high risk—returning to their office is probably not going to be as safe as those returning to a job with little-to-no interaction with the general public and where social distancing can be maintained at all times—the lowest level on the pyramid.
Where is your office located?
Is your office located in a hotspot where cases of the novel coronavirus are surging? The greater the number of cases in your particular area, the greater the chance you have of coming into contact with—and potentially being infected by—the disease. While many states and cities are anxious to get their economies back up and running, it is obviously going to be safer to return to the workplace in communities with flat, or optimally, decreasing rates of COVID-19 infections.
Additionally, if your daily commute requires that you travel to or from a hotspot for work, you increase the chances of creating a new outbreak within your community—should you become infected. While younger healthy adults might be asymptomatic or experience only minor symptoms when infected, they can very easily transmit the virus to those who could become critically ill.
How’s Your Health?
If you are considered a member of one of the vulnerable classes of individuals likely to become severely ill and/or potentially die from an infection with COVID-19, being amongst the first wave of employees to return to the office is probably not the safest choice you could make. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Older adults, especially people 65 years of age and older
- People of any age with certain underlying medical conditions
- Members of specific racial and ethnic minority groups regardless of age
- Pregnant people
Another consideration and an oft-overlooked area of concern—one which is equally as important as your physical state—is mental health. Being isolated for even short periods of time can have detrimental effects on a person’s well-being. So much so, that it might actually be safer for an individual to risk contracting the coronavirus by returning to the office instead of suffering the lasting consequences of remaining locked down at home alone for an extended period of time.
As you can see, while returning to the office might be considered safe for some, it definitely is not safe for everyone. However, after considering your company’s compliance with federal reopening guidelines, your geographic location, and your personal health, you can better determine if suiting up or staying home is the best option for you. That said, if you are under the age of 40, in-shape, free of any underlying medical conditions, not in close contact or caring for someone considered vulnerable, and work in a profession with a low risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, it is probably completely “safe” to go back to the office.