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HuffPost UK reader James asked: “How safe is it to go to work?”
You’re more likely to get Covid if you’re going to a physical workplace than if you’re working from home, according to (pretty unsurprising) results from the latest Covid-19 Infection Survey.
We know the most likely way the virus spreads is through close contact interactions with people who are infected.
If everyone in your household is working from home, then you’re drastically limiting interactions with people who are infected. But if you go to different workplaces on a daily basis, the risk understandably increases: the network of people you’re coming into contact with widens, you spend long periods of time indoors with them, and in lots of cases, you’re not necessarily wearing masks or keeping 2 metres apart.
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According to analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), carried out between October 2020 and April 2021, the more difficult it is for people to maintain social distancing in the workplace, the more likely they are to test positive for Covid-19. Meanwhile people who travelled to work were more likely to test positive than those working from home, regardless of the mode of travel.
A survey from November 2020 found more than a third of UK workers were worried about catching Covid at work, despite businesses implementing measures to keep people safe. The poll, conducted by the Resolution Foundation think tank, found that nearly half (47%) of employees rated the risk of transmission at work as “fairly” or “very high”, the Independent reported.
Unfortunately it’s not easy to quantify the risk of catching the virus at work because workplaces are so different in their layout and organisation – and it’s also hard to tell where people caught the virus from (for example, they could have caught it en route to work, in the supermarket, or at after-work drinks).
That said, there are some factors that you may want to consider when thinking about your safety in a physical workspace.
1. How many people have Covid in your area?
This is very important because if infection rates are low in your town or city, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll be catching Covid-19 at work – although that’s not to say it can’t happen. You can find out cases in your country, region and local authority on the UK government’s website.
2. Do you work indoors or outdoors?
If you work outdoors, the risk of you catching Covid will be very low. In indoor workspaces, this risk rises far more as people are routinely breathing in each other’s air, which could potentially carry infected particles. While people should be self-isolating and not going to work if they feel ill, we do know that one in three with Covid won’t experience any symptoms at all.
3. How well ventilated is your workplace?
Fresh air helps to dilute the virus in spaces where people are working so it’s pretty crucial to have adequate ventilation throughout the day – whether that’s through opening doors, windows and vents, or using mechanical ventilation such as fans and air conditioning, or a combination of both.
Researchers suggest Covid is most likely to transmit between people at close range through inhalation, rather than through surface contact or longer range airborne routes – although they note those routes can also be responsible, but less commonly so. Good ventilation reduces the risk of you inhaling large amounts of virus that would otherwise build up in a room with no airflow.
4. How many people do you work with directly?
The more people you work with, the higher your risk of catching Covid is as you’re basically being exposed to more people’s germs. Ideally, people should be spaced out within indoor work settings and not crowded into small spaces.
Being indoors, working in close proximity, poor ventilation and environments that are relatively cold (such as food processing plants), seem to facilitate greater transmission of the virus and can lead to so-called super spreading.
5. Can you socially distance?
At work you should be aiming to be sitting or working 2 metres from others at all times. In some cases, where this isn’t viable, you can work within a distance of 1 metre, according to government guidance, however it’s your employer’s responsibility to ensure they are mitigating risk.
This could mean encouraging more frequent hand-washing and cleaning of surfaces, keeping time workers spend together as short as possible, installing screens or barriers, using back-to-back or side-to-side working rather than face-to-face, and reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ – meaning each person works with only a few others.
6. Are you and your co-workers wearing masks?
Masks aren’t mandatory in the workplace in England, but in Scotland and Wales people should be wearing them in any indoor communal area at work (like the office reception). In Scotland, masks should also be worn where there are no measures in place to keep people separated by either a screen or distance of at least 2 metres.
Experts note that masks can have a huge impact on indoor transmission. If your co-workers aren’t wearing masks, you can still choose to wear one to protect others and also, to some degree, yourself.
Generally, experts agree that surgical masks are more protective than cloth face coverings – and studies back this up.
7. How often is your workplace cleaned?
Fomite transmission – the chance of catching the virus by touching infected objects or surfaces, and then your nose or mouth – is deemed less of a risk than we first thought.
That said, workplaces should have regular cleaning in place for communal surfaces and objects – think light switches, door handles, kettles, printers, etc.
It goes without saying you should also be washing or sanitising your hands regularly, especially after using the toilet and before eating.
8. Who’s vaccinated?
As more people are vaccinated, the risk of contracting the virus at work will reduce. While we still don’t fully know to what extent the vaccine stops people who are vaccinated from spreading the virus, data is pointing in the right direction.
Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus.To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.