5 Ways To Make Your Office Safer

Steelcase’s Brandon Lacic shares 5 ways to help you create a safer work environment.

safer work environment

The one certainty surrounding the future of COVID-19 is nothing is certain. Between surges, new variants, a dearth of testing and a myriad of other challenges, when and how businesses welcome back employees en masse remains different for every organization. However, it’s not too early to work on creating a safer work environment.

After all, the workplace never had to mitigate the spread of disease pre-pandemic.

Employees who must stay home for extended periods of time with Covid-19 or influenza equate to a big loss for businesses; to the tune of more than $7 billion a year. We recently brought together scientists, business leaders, designers and other experts to develop a systemic approach to safety to ultimately improve employee wellness and productivity, and reduce employee absences due to illness.

safer work environment
Steelcase developed a multi-pronged framework for thinking about human health, safety and comfort in the workplace.

THE HUMAN ELEMENT

Human behavior and how individuals interact with their shared and personal spaces in the office goes a long way in curbing the spread of communicable disease (OSHA). Don’t underestimate the power of enacting a healthy culture infused with personal accountability.

OSHA recommends companies adopt a mask policy and encourage adherence to limit the spread of the virus along with making employees feel more comfortable. Distancing can also limit the airborne spread by allowing infected droplets to fall to the floor before reaching another person. In addition, a culture that encourages good personal hygiene, handwashing and surface cleaning regimens will add to the overall health of your workplace.

THE AIR UP THERE

The science around airborne transmission of COVID-19 is still evolving, particularly given the nature of the virus and its variants. A global survey of more than 32,000 employees found air management was among their chief workplace safety concerns. To that end, there are a number of facility considerations to improve air management.

Temperature, humidity, air flow and filter choice can all have an impact on air management. For those businesses that are expanding or retooling their HVAC system, the latest established ASHRAE guidelines can help foster a clean-air environment. It’s important for building owners and users to understand the building’s ventilation system, including the location of HVAC supply and return vents, and to organize the space to work in harmony with that system. The best air quality is often closest to the supply vents, making it a good location for workstations where people spend long periods of time. Research also shows high-efficiency filters, stand-alone air cleaners, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) units and portable air filtration systems can help reduce infection and allow employees to feel more secure.

MORE THAN AESTHETICS

Density, furniture arrangement and the addition of barriers, such as screens, can all add an element of safety to the workplace. For example, consider holding some meetings in open work spaces where the air flow is greater and distancing is easier to do. The addition of personal enclaves or pods provide people places to shield themselves from others. And, place furniture to avoid face-to-face seating arrangements.

The CDC has long recommended using barriers or screens to interrupt direct person-to-person transmission. Barriers designed to be moved and reconfigured allow for greater personal privacy and protection.

Smart sensing-technology embedded throughout the workplace will help organizations use data to monitor occupancy and identify hotspots that might require more attention or additional adjustments. More hands-free technology like space scheduling technology or even automatic faucets and doors will add to a safer work environment overall.

Hand-washing stations and access to cleaning supplies will act as visual cues to remind people to commit to these healthier habits.

SURFACE-LEVEL SAFETY

Science is discovering non-porous surfaces hold a flu or COVID-19 virus far longer than fabrics and other non-porous surfaces. We commissioned an independent lab to conduct the first-ever study of how long the virus remained active on contract surface materials.

Using ISO 18184 and OC43 (an ASTM-recommended surrogate for SARS CoV-2), the lab found no active virus was detectable on polyurethane-coated fabric within two hours and on 100% polyester fabrics within 12 hours. On 100% wool, within a day, the amount of active virus recovered was reduced by 93.6%.

Other viruses such as influenza A have been shown to display similar differential survival times on porous vs. non-porous materials, further supporting the contention that textiles are likely not a predominant source of contact transmission during annual flu outbreaks.

CLEANING UP YOUR ACT

There are three components to consider when thinking about keeping surfaces clean when it comes to the office.

  • How many people touch any particular surface?
  • How often are they touching it?
  • How often will it be cleaned?

Facility managers and business leaders can then create indexes of high-risk/high-traffic spaces and elements and lower-risk surfaces and create a cleaning schedule or strategy that ensures disinfection efforts are focused on what will really make a difference. Furthermore, the CDC advises standard soap or detergent is generally enough to reduce surface transmission risk.

GET IN GEAR NOW

The dynamics and tensions of hybrid work are evolving, but what’s clear is both workers and leaders understand the importance of in-person collaboration. While the uncertainty of the pandemic continues, there are concrete steps that can be taken to ensure that when employees return, they will be safer and feel safer at companies that work to create a healthier environment.

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