Workers Have a Voice in Preventing Transmission of Airborne COVID-19

Person wearing respirator mask and white hardhat

Prior to 2020 most of us rarely considered how one tiny virus could completely upend our day-to-day lives. Going out into the world now suddenly requires we take so many calculated risks – Do I mask-up in a room where I’m the only one doing that? Should I visit the grocery story at 7:30 am instead of on my way home from work?

Let’s face it, making these kinds of everyday risk-calculations on a minute-by-minute basis is EXHAUSTING. Research has shown that taking familiar activities of daily life and dousing them with fear, anxiety and uncertainty profoundly undermines our psychological and physical well-being. An important feature to successfully coping with illness or the risk of illness is feeling like you have some measure of control. For workers this means having a degree of involvement and influence in how their workplaces are kept safe and healthy.

COVID-19 Exposure Risks Are Not Shared Equally 

The SARS-Cov-2 virus itself represents the workplace biological hazard at hand. When and how workers are exposed to the virus varies widely across sectors and within single workplaces. From the confines of their homes, remote workers are the least directly exposed yet they may still feel not as involved in protecting their office environments when asked to return.

Essential and front-line workers are the most exposed depending on the degree to which they have control over their work environments. Sadly, for these workers their level of control is most often very limited. Imagine you’re a retail cashier, a server, receptionist, or anyone else who interacts regularly with the public for hours a day over weeks and months at a time. How might these essential workers be feeling as the province loosens public health requirements? 

Many factors affect your risk for contracting COVID-19 in the workplace. Here’s a shortlist:

  • Personal Traits (vaccination status, age, current health status)
  • Workplace Environment & Upkeep (ventilation & air purification practices, surface cleaning, room occupancies)
  • Job Duties & Administrative Practices (public-facing work, remote work policies)
  • Access to Personal Protective Equipment (masks and respirators such as N95s)
  • Viral Characteristics (mutated transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness)

Despite the recent loosening of public health restrictions in Manitoba (and halting of disease surveillance), we are not out of the woods yet. In other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, we have seen the clear start of another wave, this time fueled by the Omicron subvariant BA.2. Regarding this new subvariant, health authorities are once again sounding the familiar alarm of “higher” transmissibility equals more hospitalizations and more strain on our healthcare systems.

We’re all struggling with pandemic fatigue, but now is not the time to give in! Essential workers, especially those serving the public day-in-and-day-out, deserve our continued empathy and support. Every workplace stakeholder including union representatives, health and safety experts, employers, supervisors, and workers themselves should all get back to the basics and reflect on the following questions:

  • What are the most effective ways we can limit viral transmission in the workplace?
  • As we face a more transmissible variant of COVID-19, which of these transmission risk factors can we more easily control?
  • How can we engage the widest number of worker’s voices in this decision-making process?

Joint health and safety committees are well-equipped to bring these questions back to the table and explore options. It’s important for workplace leaders to deliberately set aside time to listen to workers who might be experiencing what experts call “re-entry or return anxiety”. An important factor worth maximizing in every workplace is psychological safety, a concept based largely on workers’ spontaneous ability to express themselves, to feel heard and to be involved in the protection of their own work environments. Employers will have an improved, more robust health and safety agenda with an engaged, psychologically safe workforce. At the Occupational Health Centre we recommend committee members go back to their original COVID-19 safety plans and take a fresh look at how their plans fully involve workers.

Feeling “Out of Control” & Why Protecting Indoor Air Quality Matters Now More than Ever

Since 2020, as the pandemic gained steam, studies examining how COVID-19 spreads continued to emphasize how important indoor air quality was to viral transmission.  Early in the pandemic it was believed COVID spread through larger, heavier droplets that were more likely inhaled within a radius of a couple meters. Currently, every reputable global public health institution now acknowledges the airborne nature of the virus.

SARS-Cov-2 viral particles come in many shapes and sizes. Smaller particles tend to accumulate in poorly ventilated spaces after only a few hours time. This inconvenient truth puts the onus on property owners and employers to do more to update their ventilation systems. Health and safety committees would do well to investigate the adequacy of their current HVAC systems and ask whether they meet international standards to adequately recycle indoor air and break apart small-size viral particles. Inadequate HVAC maintenance will lead to poor air exchange and pooling of airborne particles. Add poor indoor ventilation and lack of public health measures with a lack of freely available N95 respirators for essential workers and it’s no wonder folks are nervous.

Every workplace should aim to control airborne exposure to COVID-19 by incorporating ventilation best practices known to break down small particles and filter them out of well-circulated air. The OHC website has several ventilation resources available to workplaces for improving indoor ventilation and COVID-19.

The Psychological Benefits of Promoting Better Indoor Air Quality

There’s chronic stress associated with waking up every day, heading into your office or workstation and wondering whether your mask or respirator will continue to do its job. It’s not enough to rely strictly on worker-level PPE without addressing environmental concerns such as indoor air quality. Optimal health and safety approaches address the root causes, which in this case means keeping COVID-19 out of the workplace.

The Swiss Cheese Model for Health and Safety works very well in this regard as we’re hard-pressed to eliminate the virus completely from the air. The image below illustrates how this model is used in the context of infection control. Addressing workplace ventilation used to be viewed as a ‘precautionary option’ but that view is quickly shifting as new science emerges about how rapidly the Omicron subvariant B.2 is spreading. As chronic stress, anxiety and fear of returning to the office settle in workers are looking to their leaders to reassure them that the air they breath won’t make them sick.

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Source: Infection Control Today

Tips on How to Begin a Conversation about Workplace Ventilation and COVID-19

The best place to start this conversation is at your next workplace health and safety committee meeting! Begin by first educating yourself on the importance of promoting ventilation best practices. Here are a few tips to help get you started:

  • Read up on the latest research on airborne COVID-19 and its growing relevance to workplace. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health Safety is a great place to start.
  • Explore the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) website which includes many ventilation resources and assessment tools.
  • Assess your current ventilation/HVAC systems. You can use the OHCOW ventilation checklist to help get you started
  • Investigate other cost-effective alternatives to overhauling your HVAC system. For example, you could use lower cost, portable air purifiers and/or revamp room occupancy and scheduling procedures with the help of a CO2 monitor. This free tool can help you select an air purifier that will work for you space.
  • Bring this topic up frequently at health and safety committee meetings emphasizing the other psychosocial benefits of giving a voice to workers and their concerns

No one is an island. Tackling COVID-19, and the highly contagious subvariants that cause this disease, will continue to be an uphill battle requiring that employers take the high road. Addressing ventilation challenges is a progressive, precautionary approach that should be on the minds of every workplace health and safety leader. Now, more than ever before, it is critically important that we incorporate ventilation best practices into our workplace COVID-19 safety plans.