The biggest challenge to the human health and financial stability the world faces today, perhaps originated from a seemingly innocuous and small mammal such as a bat, which Chinese people of Wuhan would love to have in form of soup or some other delicious food item. As soon as the virus, now known as COVID-19 or coronavirus of year 2019 manifested itself, people in Wuhan started dying like proverbial flies. One key aspect of the nature of this virus is its easy or rather rapid transmission. In a short time, the World Health Organization was forced to declare it a pandemic. All of the 240 countries of the world were in its grip, some more than others. Scientists from the world over are still striving to develop appropriate medicines/vaccines, which are yet forthcoming. The COVID-19 has singularly impacted almost every country of the world, causing illness/death and also financial disaster in its wake.
Different countries have tried different approaches in order to counter the threat of COVID-19, with varying degree of success. These approaches consisted of the following:
- Complete denial of COVID-19 existence
- Hoping COVID-19 would melt away due to summer heat
- Religious remedies (reciting holy scriptures and various incantations)
- Trying conventional and unconventional medicines randomly such as vitamins, chloroquine, antibiotics, seeds of various plants and ingesting large amounts of alcohol (methanol and ethanol), drinking disinfectants etc.
- Containment & Control (Testing & Isolate)
- Developing a Herd Immunity
China, from where this virus originated adopted the Containment & Control strategy, i.e., a complete lockdown. People were forced to stay confined to their areas along with extensive sampling to get an educated guess of the total number suffering from this calamity. This approach was found to be successful in China largely. Some other countries noticing the Chinese model’s success tried the same approach. This included New Zealand, South Korea and some other far eastern countries.
Some other countries adopted a hit and trial approach, which included some form of Herd Immunity approach. These countries are caught between the proverbial devil and deep sea. There is no easy answer. A complete lockdown is difficult to manage, as it threatens the economy. It also threatens freedom of movement. On other hand none of others are facing.
In Pakistan perhaps all of the approaches have been tried, but the desired results are yet to be forthcoming. As a result, a general consensus is emerging, that this virus is here to stay, bar some magic bullet drug, which is invented and which can get rid of scourge. In the meantime, we cannot keep the offices and work places closed indefinitely. We need to revert to the normal.
Offices are a vital part of providing services to customers. Considering the service sector, a fully functional office becomes a necessity to carry out day-to-day operation. After the event of COVID-19 pandemic many offices are/have been closed, and many have allowed their employees to do work from home. However, this is not tenable in the long run. Sooner or later, we have to open the workplace to carry out the day-to-day operations. Now the question arises i.e. how the office can be operated with the threat of COVID-19 virus? What should we do?
The key to fighting and containing COVID-19 consists of improving the personal and work place hygiene. The virus particulate matter is reported to consist of inert protein material coated with a layer of fat. Tiny offshoots protrude out of the fat covering, which is said to resemble a Crown, hence the name given to the virus. This particulate matter has a different lifespan on different surfaces, temperature and humidity conditions. The process of cleaning, especially using disinfectants, which contains alcohol removes the fat covering and degrades the virus virality.
In order to combat the virus both workplaces and personnel need to make aware of importance of hygiene as related to both workers and work place. Distance has to be maintained between personnel, so that transmission can be controlled. An important point is to make life style changes. These changes are here to stay. Hence, gatherings are to be avoided.
Following is suggested for a proper approach towards fighting and containing the COVID-19:
Work place hygiene
Office floors, walls, workstations & cubicles should be cleaned with disinfectant before the office starts. Office staff should not be allowed to enter in the office unless all floors, walls, workstations & cubicles cleaned with disinfectant. Use the following procedure to disinfect the workstations & cubicles:
- Perform Hand hygiene
- The workstations/desk should be cleaned for dust particles. For this purpose, use the fabric duster along with water spray (where required).
- One fabric duster should only be used for two workstations/desk.
- After cleaning the dust particles, spray the disinfectant on the workstations/desk and spread it with clean porous fabric.
- One porous fabric should be used for single array of table.
- After cleaning, all fabrics cloths/dusters should be placed for washing with detergent.
- Use a new wipe in between cleaning and disinfecting, and when moving to another surface. Many studies have shown a failure to do so, allows bacteria/virus to transfer to that surface and the hands of the person holding the wipe.
Each workstation may look different in appearance, but it is important to clean and disinfect the entire workstation including the work surface, keyboard and mouse tray, monitor, paper tray, exterior part of the workstation and other accessories. Furniture and other accessories of cubicles should be cleaned as described above. The glass of cubicles & windows should be cleaned with glass cleaner solution (having disinfectant) and handle of the door should be initially cleaned with duster and after that with disinfectant.
The floor cleaning is an essential part of the work place hygiene. Mopping is general practice around the world but important things which should be considered are as under:
- Thoroughly, clean the mop before using, with cleaning agent (soap/detergent).
- Mop has to be soaked in disinfectant for floor disinfection.
- A mop should be rinsed after coving the area of 120-150 square feet.
- Use the Dettol/Phenyl/other disinfectant (Mix 1 gallon of water with 1/2 cup ammonia, 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1/4 cup borax) to prepare disinfectant solutions.
For wall cleaning & disinfecting, after spraying disinfectant on tile walls, scrub tile walls with a clean sponge and wait 10 to 15 minutes for the chemicals/disinfectant to do their job. Spray the whole office with disinfectant spray after every two weeks. Use the internationally recommended disinfectant for all purposes. We should repeat the floor cleaning process at-least 3 times in normal working hours. Place sheet partitions between workstations to avoid any infectious contact. We should consider removing hallway doors or keeping them open all the time.
Social distancing while at work
It’s important to enforce and maintain distance among coworkers while at work. Office space should not be crowded. A minimum distance of six feet is to be maintained. Body contacts need to be avoided. While working in cabins or office, not more than two people should enter the space at one time while masks should be made mandatory while meeting others. Office entrances/reception should be disinfected (from spray) after every two hours, especially if lot of people are visiting the premises.
Allow the persons on alternative basis to work from home to reduce exposure risk. (Departments should decide this at their own) (use means like Skype for business, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom). Use of online conference calls should continue for meetings, Department Heads and senior staff with private office space should be encouraged to connect remotely from their office, leaving conference room space vacant for floor employees. During the break only those persons should be allowed to go outside having special permission, remaining should be stayed at office.
In order to reduce transmission among employees and practice social distancing, it is suggested to put in place a phased approach for office staff to return to work when lockdowns are lifted. The timelines may vary between depending on the provincial regulations, safety concerns in public transport and areas where COVID-19 infected cases were reported. A Crises Management Team (CMT) (aka., Monitoring & Control Committee) shall decide on timelines of each phase as deemed appropriate (CMT must should also control the other COVID-19 prevention activities). Employee should sign the health declaration form while returning to office.
Washroom should be cleaned as per standard procedures, as the washrooms can be the suspected source of COVID-19 and other germs due to the type of usage and frequent human traffic. A study at Fayetteville State University found 87 percent of public restrooms surveyed in the city were configured in such a way that washed hands could be re-contaminated in seconds by touching faucets and door handles.
A study which was carried by the Department of Food, Nutrition, and Packaging Sciences, Clemson University in 2013, will enable us about the cleaning strategy of bathrooms which is as under:
- Remove soil/dust/other matters from all fixtures using a clean, reusable cloth/duster or a disposable towel dipped in warm water, and a detergent.
- Rinse surfaces with warm to hot water to remove cleaning products and suspended debris.
- Wipe down all doorknobs, toilet seats, flush mechanisms, and faucet handles.
- Wash the least contaminated surfaces first (counters and faucets). Then clean the more contaminated surfaces (toilet).
- Wash the toilet with recommended cleaner.
- Prepare the disinfecting solution daily or as needed during the day.
- Apply enough disinfecting solution to thoroughly cover the surfaces using a clean reusable cloth/duster or a disposable towel. Let the solution stand for the contact time given on the label.
- Let surfaces air dry before the facilities are used.
Kitchen/Canteen area is an important part of the office which should be managed as under:
- For drinks (tea/water) use the disposable cups or self-owned glass/cups. Each person should be responsible to take care of his/he own cup/glass. Department wise timing should be allowed to clean/wash cups/glass.
- After lunch, crockery items should be cleaned with extreme hygiene.
- Damp kitchen sponges and washing brushes are known bacteria/virus havens. Washing your kitchen and wiping down your equipment with the good hygiene products greatly reduces cross contamination risk dramatically.
- At least twice a day, wipe down the sink with cleaning agent as part of your kitchen hygiene rules. While once in a week, disinfect it by filling it up with either hot or warm water plus a small quantity of bleach. Remember to scrub around the entire sink with a good scourer, not forgetting the inside of the drainage pipe and plus.
- Daily wipe out your oven using a cloth/duster and warm water. Disinfectant spray at outside of oven body will eliminate cross-contamination.
- At least once a month, take out the fridge shelves and compartments and have them washed with warm water and soap. We should daily wipe down the fridge outside too, particularly the handle with disinfectant.
- We have to clean the crockery storage compartments and kitchen slabs with the cleaning agent on daily bases. (Must use gloves for all activities)
- The used cleaning cloths of kitchen should be washed daily to decontaminate virus and bacteria.
- For canteen area strictly practice social distancing and disinfect it after daily usage. To handle large employees, allow different time periods for canteen usage.
Place disinfecting gates at each entry. A handheld/portable spray bottle with disinfection material should be available to disinfect the items at any place. Provide hand sanitizers at entry/exit doors and make sure that everyone should use sanitizer while entering in the premises. Any person which is entering in the premises should be checked for temperature. If any suspiciousness found must act as per instruction. Entry without mask should not be allowed. Any person (other than staff) entering in the premises should be restricted to reception. All dealings should be done at reception or in isolated area. For special person(s) visiting the office should be allowed to visit the office premises to discuss important matter or meeting or to deliver important material, if they fulfill the following condition:
- Wearing mask
- Clearance from entrance as per instruction (disinfection of person & material, temperature monitoring)
- Clearance from Admin department
- During meeting precautions should be followed (distance, mask etc)
Otherwise for all other matters the meeting should be done at reception or in isolated area.
Regularly wash your hands after every 2 hours or sanitize them. Also, immediately wash your hands if any contaminating event happens. Clean your hands frequently – especially: before handling food, before eating, after using tissues, after handling cash. Cough or sneeze into your elbow – NOT on your hands OR use tissue to cover your mouth.
Employee should wear the mask all the time. However, for better respiration displace the mask after every 15 minutes for two minutes. Don’t touch your eye, nose, mount in this process and also when the mask is displaced (sanitize hand every time you touch the mask). If you feel any cough or sneezing event, immediately put the mask back on face for protection. A person with any respiratory disease should consult the health care professional about mask wearing and let the management know about it.
Janitors and peons should wear all the necessary PEP. Janitors should wear the protection suit, mask & gloves while cleaning and after cleaning. Dispose-of the gloves and mask while put the protection suit at sanitization (if reusable) (mask can be used if not disposable but after disinfecting). Janitors and peons should change their clothes/uniform at least once in the day. Clothes/uniform of janitors and peons should be washed on daily basis.
All staff should take bath before coming to office. Strictly avoid wearing the clothes of previous day. Avoid contacting with the dust bins. Avoid touching door handles, use body force to open doors or sanitize your hand if you touch handle. Report any ill condition to concerned authorities.
It will be better if cleaning spray and disposable wipes are provided to staff to keep their work surfaces and equipment hygienic & clean.
Also perform following:
- Dispose tissues immediately after use.
- Do not come to work if you are unwell.
- Keep a portable hand sanitizer with you.
- Don’t shake hands and avoid hugs.
- Avoid eating undercooked food.
- Don’t share tableware & personnel office equipment.
Disposal of waste
Disposable PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) should be treated as potentially infectious material and disposed in accordance with specified rules. Disposable medical face masks are intended for a single use only. After use they should be removed using appropriate techniques (i.e. do no touch the front, remove by pulling the elastic ear straps or laces from behind) and disposed of immediately in an infectious waste bin with a lid, followed by hand hygiene. The use of disposable or dedicated cleaning equipment is recommended for disposal of any waste. Non-single use PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) should be decontaminated using the available products. Don’t place any possible waste or infectious material on tables, workstations, desk, chairs, sofa or anywhere. Immediately throw such material in dust bin. If such thing observed, immediately disinfect the area. Waste should be put in a plastic rubbish bag and tied when full and then this plastic bag should then be placed in a second bin bag and tied (properly dispose them after using). Sanitize your hand before and after handling waste. Strictly, avoid the touching of waste bag with your clothes or anything in path way. After collecting waste of all bins immediately dispose of the collected waste. Wash the dust bins on daily basis and if any dust bin suspected as any virus contamination, immediately wash the dust bin with disinfectant.
Virus can stay at different surfaces from 3 hours to 7 days. An office can be exposed to virus from different things like personnel interactions, physical mail, a person carrying the virus in his clothes, currency notes/cheques, crockery, food item/packing of food items, unhygienic conditions/act, wooden workstations, transfer of virus via bathroom, reusing of disposable safety/other products, late identification of disinfected person, peons moving in and out of the office frequently. Researches that published in “New England Journal of Medicine” and “The Lancet Microbe” (appear in business insider article) reveal that how long a virus can stay on different surfaces under specific environment.
Must disinfect yourself after handling of any of the above material (if suspected).
In office environment, following methods can be used to disinfect different products:
- Washing with detergent/soap/disinfecting material: It is the most common method and mainly effective for fabric, floor, washrooms and washable materials.
- Dry heat: The dry heat can be obtained from iron, pre heat oven, hair dryer. As per WHO guidelines, heat at 70oC (normal cooking temperature) makes the coronavirus susceptible.)
- Using of recommended disinfected spray or spray of disinfectant having 70% alcohol(ethanol) content: This the also a widely used methods, usually used in sanitizing gates & disinfectant spray bottles. Disinfectant spray bottles are used for materials like cloths, glass, metals, tiles, shiny wooden material etc.
- Sanitizers: Mainly used to sanitize hands and portable small products.
- Diluted Bleach: Can be used for floor, washrooms & kitchen sink.
- Steam: Steam has more than 70oC temperature, so it is effective to use for decontamination.
- UV Lights: Can be effective but it is very hard to set the parameters of UV light for COVID-19 and also the equipment is not easily available in offices.(Recommended for laboratory equipment)
- Vaporized Hydrogen Per Oxide: Used in hospital with specialized equipment. It is very effective but cannot be used in general office as it required special equipment, training and product understanding. Further it is highly explosive. (Recommended for Hospital equipment)
- Place the Item in isolation with extreme care for a time period as per above mentioned table.
- Remote working of office
Now coming towards the remote working of office, it is difficult to operate from home where you are lacking in facilities of office and other material. So, the only solution which can work is the complete digitization of work process i.e. cloud access and soft forms. To cope with job crisis in the era of COVID-19, we have to re-think about the conventional office working. Among Smart Thinking/Digitization following options can be useful for any office environment:
- A paper less working
- Handling of customers through web portal and apps
- Delivery of service at door step (stay at home services)
- Using of online financial sources
- Tele sale and telecommunication
- Use of social application for day-to-day office communications
- 24/7 online working
- Use of smart gadgets
- Industry 4.0 Concepts
- Removal of waste steps among processes
- A flexible service system based on cloud/remote parameters
- Any other type of process improvement (involving Kaizen, Six Sigma, etc)
The professionals, which can handle the above strategies, are Industrial Engineers or Process Improvement Experts which with the help of IT guys can make the reliable and better process.
If we look around than different governments trying different approaches to handle the pandemic crises but any government cannot fight against the crises at their own. Individually we also have to take the responsibility to follow the guidelines and instructions provided by the government. It will not only keep us safe but also our loved ones. Similarly, in office it is the responsibility of management to provide better and hygiene environment while staff has to act sensibly as instructed.