COVID-19: A guide to reducing COVID-19 in an office environment

How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 transmits between people in different ways. Often, it spreads via infected particles released into the air when a person coughs, sneezes, speaks or even breathes. Large droplets fall to the ground, however, aerosols can stay in the air, waiting for people to inhale them and become infected with the virus. Transmission of the virus is most common when people are close to each other, usually less than one metre apart.

The virus can spread quickly in offices. When people spend so much of their daily life in a space that they share with many others, there is a high risk of transmission. As well as the virus spreading via the air, it can also spread when high-touch areas, such as desks, keyboards, light switches, and door handles, become contaminated. These surfaces can become vectors for the spread of the virus. The more people that touch them, the higher the chance of contamination. If a single surface is compromised within an office, the virus can infect the majority of a workspace within a matter of hours.

Ventilation in the workplace – what’s the law?

Ventilation is essential for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in enclosed spaces. This means that employers are required by law to ensure that their workplace is adequately ventilated. Current guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that enclosed areas of a workplace must have an adequate supply of fresh air. This can come from either natural ventilation, achieved by opening windows, doors or air vents (known as ‘passive airflow’), or from mechanical ventilation, which involves fans and ducts bringing in fresh air from outside.

Increasingly, businesses are investing in ventilation systems to introduce clean air and remove contaminated indoor air. Professional ventilation cleaning is required to keep these systems clean, hygienic and working effectively over time. Ventilation duct cleaning services ensure that ducts are thoroughly cleaned, helping to improve and maintain indoor air quality.

Employers need to consider the rules surrounding air changes per hour (ACPH) when ensuring their workplaces are adequately ventilated. An important aspect of building regulations in the UK, air changes per hour measures the rate at which the air within a space is completely recycled. The higher the ACPH, the more frequently the air is cycled through the ventilation system, reducing the risk that a person in a space will inhale contaminated particles and become infected. Specific air change rates are required for exchanging dirty, contaminated air with fresh, clean air. Look at Approved document F for further information on air change rates in the UK.

Making a ventilation assessment

There are various factors to consider when deciding what type and how much ventilation is required in your workplace. You can use either natural ventilation or mechanical ventilation. Employers are advised to look at floor plans to determine how different areas of a workspace are ventilated. Do not forget to consider rooms such as canteens or changing rooms in your assessment. You will need to think about the size of the area, how many people occupy it, and what tasks or activities are carried out there.

What is the purpose of ventilation in the workplace?

Adequate ventilation has been shown to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in enclosed spaces. Since it reduces how much virus is present in the air, it helps to reduce the risk of aerosol transmission. Transmission can occur when a person inhales small particles (aerosols) from the air after an infected person has been in the same area. The risk of airborne transmission is far greater in spaces that are badly ventilated, with more people likely to become sick with the virus. To minimise the spread of COVID-19, it is important to ensure that your office is used within the occupancy limited detailed in the building design. You must also have a sufficient supply of fresh air to meet the current minimum building standards. If you are not sure if your office space is adequately ventilated, get advice from a professional ventilation engineer.

How to create a COVID-safe workspace

Creating a COVID-safe workspace is your responsibility as an employer. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) states that “people’s health and wellbeing, and stringent measures to prevent the virus from spreading, should still be at the heart of every employer’s response”. This means that you need to take all practical steps to safeguard employees’ health, safety and wellbeing throughout the pandemic. One major aspect of this is ensuring that your workspace is adequately ventilated. If you have a ventilation system installed to replace stale, contaminated air with clean, fresh air, it is important to make sure that it is maintained to a high standard. Ventilation duct cleaning services can help to ensure this is the case. Whilst ventilation is vital for reducing the risk from aerosols, it is important to keep in mind that it has minimal impact on droplet transmission (which occurs when people are in close contact) and contact transmission (from touching surfaces). Therefore, it is essential that other measures are taken to further reduce the spread of the virus. These include keeping the workplace clean and encouraging staff to socially distance and wash their hands frequently. You should carry out a risk assessment to decide what steps you need to take to protect your employees and others from COVID-19.