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How companies can ensure a Covid-free workplace

Germany’s national obsession with Lüften, the art of airing rooms, was sometimes seen as an oddity best kept to itself. Even in the middle of winter, the windows opened to let in the cool air. But then the coronavirus pandemic arrived.

Although it was initially disputed that the coronavirus spreads through the air, we now know differently. Up to 90% of infections are transmitted this way, according to Julian Tang, a virologist and professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester. And it seems the Germans were right all along: studies show that good ventilation helps minimize the transmission of airborne viruses.

This holds several lessons for companies trying to get staff back to the office safely as the world returns to “normal”.

“The pandemic is not over yet,” warns Steven Nimmo, medical consultant and president of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine. “The big concern at the moment is that we haven’t seen seasonal flu since the pandemic started. It’s because people have isolated themselves socially. There’s a potential for disaster, really, in terms of combination of Covid with the flu this season.”

Tang suggests employers can try to help. “If you’re in a large office building that’s fairly well ventilated, like one of the big accountants, they may have the option of increasing their ventilation throughout the building or buying and installing a portable air purifier. “, he says.

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A German study air purifiers in classrooms and how they affect coronavirus transmission found that in less than half an hour, the devices could remove 90% of virus-laden aerosol particles in a room. The authors of the research, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, said the units were more effective than conventional window ventilation alone.

In the UK, air quality at work is specified by the Health and Safety Executive. It says air conditioning systems must ensure that the flow of fresh air does not fall below five to eight liters per second per staff member. Or, where there is no mechanical ventilation, the HSE advises airing rooms for 10 minutes per hour to improve air quality as an interim measure. Carbon dioxide monitors can be used to identify poorly ventilated rooms, the HSE adds.

But, for employers, another factor to consider is the number of employees in a given workplace. They must ensure each person has 11 cubic meters of space, according to the HSE.

Vaccines also reduce transmission, Tang notes. In Britain, 88% of people aged over 12 have been vaccinated with two shots, but only 70% have so far received a booster shot.

“A lot of employers will tell their staff, take the time to get vaccinated, as they would [with] general medical appointments,” says Jane Gratton, head of people policy at the UK Chambers of Commerce.

NHS staff receive the coronavirus vaccine
A vaccination clinic in a Glasgow hospital. Helping staff get bitten can benefit employers © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

This is the approach taken by Commerzbank in Germany, where it has been several months since most coronavirus measures were removed. The bank pays its staff for the time spent getting vaccinated, just as it would for the time spent working.

Making information about where staff can get vaccinated clearly available — through poster campaigns or email — is also good practice, says Gratton. Alternatively, employers can simply turn to sausage rolls. “In my [hospital], you get a free lunch if you get your flu shot,” says Nimmo. “They give you a voucher for Greggs, where you get a free pastry and free tea or coffee.”

Face coverings are another effective protective measure against Covid-19, although they are rather out of fashion. A study calculated that, if two people wear well-fitting FFP2 masks and one is infected, the risk of coronavirus transmission drops from 90% to 0.4% at most, even after one hour of conversation. If they wear surgical masks, the risk goes from 90% to 30% at most.

“Masks work,” says Tang. “The question is, can you tolerate them? And can you afford them? Commerzbank recommends that its staff wear masks.

However, many staff members are still out of the office. In early September, the number of people in UK workplaces was still down 26% from pre-pandemic levels, according to Google data. For staff returning to the office, Nimmo says managers need to be aware of how a coronavirus infection could have affected them.

Commuters wearing protective masks
Commuters in Berlin in mid-2020. Face masks can reduce coronavirus transmission rates © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“We are seeing people returning to work post-Covid suffering from a variety of symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain and muscle aches which can restrict their ability to work for several weeks,” he says – adding that services occupational health should assess each case and indicate appropriate hours and tasks.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, a severe Covid-19 infection can also increase the likelihood of new health problems – such as diabetes and heart or neurological disease.

To minimize the cost of absenteeism, it may be a good idea to invest in health insurance, says Nimmo. Long waiting lists for NHS treatment in the UK can have a costly impact on businesses.

Businesses are now well trained to deal with the upheaval caused by the coronavirus. However, while the peak of the pandemic may have passed, good workplace management through clean air, vaccinations and staff care will help prepare employers for the approach of winter. .