John Marsh, Chairperson
Over the past few months since the relaxation of the national lockdown we have seen numerous towns and cities reintroduce local lockdown measures due to the rise in new COVID-19 cases.
This has clearly not worked, and the latest evidence suggests that the number of new cases is rising daily and the new R value in some areas has been estimated to be around 1.2
In order to reduce this level, the government has had to reintroduce stricter distancing rules but many situations like children being in school and workers being encouraged to return to their workplaces still provide an opportunity for the virus to continue to spread.
Since the reopening of schools many have reported that members of their staff have contracted the virus and some schools have even had to close.
Many of us have been working from home for months and those of us with children have been able to reduce the social interaction with family, friends and work colleagues. Some parents who were classified as high risk have managed to significantly reduce the risk of catching the virus and remained relatively safe in their own protective bubble. But I suspect that this may be about to change.
Although children might appear asymptomatic and show no signs of being infected with the virus or only experience mild symptoms, they are still going to be infectious and as we know many infections can quickly spread through environments such as schools and offices. Undoubtably there are going to be many anxious parents and individuals who are now living with children and other family members who are returning to their workplaces. Not only have some schools been closed but many workplaces have also been closed since reopening due to workers contracting the virus.
Many people who have been self-isolating for months may suddenly find they have caught the virus because they live with children or family members who have returned to the workplace. In regard to schools I suspect all have put in place all the recommended COVID-19 safe control measures but what is clear is that trying to prevent the spread of the virus is extremely difficult to contain and workplaces have an equally difficult challenge ahead.
One of the difficulties that schools and businesses have is the lack of space to ensure social distancing and although all children are back in school, some offices may find that they can only bring back a fraction of their employees. With all the best will in the world, no health and safety risk assessment or policy can guarantee that their organisation will never have accidents, but control measures and safe systems of work should significantly reduce the risks of illness or injury to its employees.
Many older schools built 40 plus years ago do not have wide open spaces and usually have very small classrooms and narrow corridors that don’t allow you to ensure social distancing and many business premises have similar problems. Some schools are merely converted stately homes and some establishments occupy similar buildings that have been converted.
One local school in my town has told its staff and children that in order to reduce the risk of the infection spreading they have to open the windows to maintain a continuous fresh air change, as the building is so old that it does not have any air conditioning or ability to prevent pockets of stale air in some areas of the building. This will also be true for some businesses that also occupy premises that cannot be easily redesigned to ensure that the building is COVID-19 safe and may need to take the decision that allowing their employees to work from home might be the safest option until the availability of a vaccine.
Asking school children and teachers to wear winter clothing while sat in the classroom because you have the windows open is unsustainable and would fall foul of the welfare regulation in relation to minimum temperatures. On a recent news programme one employer stated that the only way that she could maintain a fresh air supply was to open the patio doors to her office and would have to spend thousands of pounds having to have a new air conditioning system installed, if approved by her landlord.
As it stands employers must, by law, ensure an adequate supply of fresh air in the workplace and good ventilation can help reduce the risk of spreading Coronavirus by improving general ventilation, preferably through fresh air or mechanical systems. Trying to establish a way of increasing and maintaining an adequate supply of fresh air for some establishments maybe problematic especially if you cannot open windows or doors if they happen to be fire doors.
However, I have concerns about the current HSE guidance as it states that in order to reduce the pockets of stale air in occupied spaces, it suggests that employers should consider the use of ceiling fans or desk fans, provided good ventilation is maintained. Within my organisation where the office spaces have air conditioning that is mixed with fresh air and have many workstations that have desk fans, the company has taken the decision to ban their use due to the risk of spreading the virus.
With the latest research and the World Health Organisation suggesting that the virus can remain suspended in the air for long periods of time and travel further than the 2 metres, I believe restricting their use is the sensible decision. Even if an employer has been able to ensure social distancing, an office worker with a desk fan who may be asymptomatic has the potential to be unknowingly spreading the virus to their colleagues sat beyond the current 2m distancing guidelines.
A lot of the guidance seems to be lacking in clarity with the government telling us one thing and many scientists telling us something completely different, which can be confusing when deciding who to believe.
For example, the HSE are suggesting we use floor and desk fans to increase the fresh air flow but suggest the risk of catching the virus is really low, but I am not convinced.
The USA's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that care needs to be taken if used as they acknowledge that droplets can still spread to nearby individuals. For those of you having to carry out return to work risk assessments the CDC website contains some useful information on how to ensure workplaces are COVID-19 safe and I have found it informative so please check out their website
For all of you familiar with the saying “its life Jim but not as we know it” it seems an appropriate way to describe the world coming to terms as we learn to live with the threat of the virus.
As always stay safe, during the next few months as schools and businesses try to return to some normality, there is a potential that we may see a second wave and another national lockdown.