Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, companies and businesses were quick to shift to the work-from-home concept for the safety of their employees. More than a year has passed, the government has relaxed restrictions on functioning of workplaces imposed during the lockdown gradually, which includes allowing both public and private offices to operate in full capacity. Inevitably, employers everywhere have felt the need to bring their employees back to working from the office.
However, office spaces consist of workstations, conference rooms, canteens, meeting rooms, stairways, lifts, corridors, etc which can be considered as close settings and may further add to the spread of the COVID-19 infection if proper safety measures are not practised by the companies. It is anticipated that a majority of the workforce that is currently working from home will commence working from office from September-October, 2021 so it is vital for them to follow preventive measures prescribed by the Government to prevent the spread of COVID in workplaces.
Specific Measures for Offices:
The Government of India, Ministry of Health and Family has outlined preventive measures to limit the spread of the infection in office settings and also lays down directions to effectively respond to any suspected cases of COVID-19 therein. Employers and their staff are required to fully cooperate with the following guidelines to work in a safe and COVID-19-free setting;
- All office entrances are to be equipped with hand hygiene such as a sanitiser dispenser and thermal screening provisions. Entry is only allowed for asymptomatic staff/visitors and office spaces must display posters/standees/AV media about COVID-19 safety measures prominently.
- Any staff residing in containment zones are required to inform the same to their supervisor and should be directed to work from home. Those employees who are at a higher risk of being infected such as older employees, pregnant employees and employees who have underlying medical conditions are expected to take extra precautions.
- Face masks are mandatory for all employees and those without face masks shall not be given entry. Visitors need prior permission from the office staff if they wish to meet and should be properly screened. If feasible, video conference meetings are recommended.
- Proper safety and physical distancing protocols are to be followed by the offices’ operating staff in, valet parking, parking lots, elevators, canteens, shops, stalls, along with the outside premises. Crowd and queue management shall be undertaken with the help of specific markings. Additional restrictions should be followed for the number of people using elevators.
- Workplaces should be properly cleaned and sanitized, at least twice a day. Frequently touched places, namely, doorknobs, elevator buttons, handrails, benches, washroom fixtures, etc should be cleaned and regularly disinfected (using 1% sodium hypochlorite), at least twice a day.
- Supply of hand sanitisers, soap and running water in the washrooms is mandatory. Effective hygiene etiquettes should be ensured in lavatories, drinking as well as hand washing stations.
- With regard to air conditioning and ventilation in office spaces, the guidelines recommend the temperature setting to be in the 24-30℃ range, relative humidity to be 40-70%, intake of fresh air to be maximum and adequate cross ventilation.
- Proper disposal of face/masks/gloves left by staff or visitors, collected in covered bins, must be ensured.
Measures to be taken upon occurrence of COVID-19 cases:
Despite the precautions taken the chances of infection cannot be ruled out. Therefore, organisations must be aware of the procedure for handling of any cases that occur in the workplace. If it is found that one or more persons who share a room/close office space, is suffering from symptoms that are indicative of COVID-19 then the following steps are to be undertaken;
- Place the suspected person in a room for isolation purposes and provide them with a mask/face cover till they are examined by the medics.
- Contact the nearest medical facility such as a hospital or clinic or call the state or district helpline at the earliest.
- A public health authority which includes the District Rapid Response Team or a treating physician will then undertake a risk assessment test. Further directions and advice will be given in relation to the handling of the case, informing their contacts and the need for disinfection.
- Further management of cases and contacts will be initiated as per the protocols laid down in https://ncdc.gov.in/showfile.php?lid=570.
Given the easing of the lockdown and its restrictions, many companies are intending to commence working from office, hence it is the joint responsibility of the management as well as their employees to make sure all necessary safety steps are keenly observed and strictly followed. It should be our primary concern to protect ourselves and those around us, especially our family members by ensuring our office spaces are safe and free of COVID-19.