Dossier: COVID-19

Safe return to work

As the lockdown is gradually eased, thousands of people will be returning to their offices, workshops and studios. Safety precautions to prevent a new wave of COVID-19 infections are a top priority. An occupational health physician has a few tips on how to keep safe.

Text: Robi Wildi; Foto: Sanitas

Many employees want their daily working lives to get back to normal. Product managers, team leaders, clerks and sales managers alike have had enough of working from home alone and really want to return to their office, talk face-to-face with colleagues and sit round a table together instead of using Zoom, Skype, etc. 

And this wish should soon come true in many places as the corona lockdown is eased in phases. In addition to schools and shops re-opening, companies, associations and organisations are also gradually asking their employees to return to their offices and desks. Most people are happy to return to normal, but they’re still worried. You can feel the uncertainty in the air. People are wondering how they can return to work and be among people again without exposing themselves to a high risk of infection.

Thomas Suter, Head of Occupational Medicine at the Institute for Occupational Medicine (ifa), uses a guide for employers and employees to explain how the return to work can succeed with a minimal risk of infection (Status: mid-May 2020. The tips may change according to the study situation).  

Protection against spreading the coronavirus: employer’s responsibility

The recommendations of the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) must continue to be applied carefully at places of work. “Employers are responsible for ensuring that employees aren’t exposed to unnecessary health risks,” says Thomas Suter. He believes that the following measures are essential:

  • Set an example by clearly complying with the FOPH’s hygiene rules. Hang up posters in prominent positions to remind employees of the rules.
  • Give all employees the opportunity to comply with the hygiene rules, for example regular hand washing.
  • Provide an infrastructure that enables social distancing (two meters apart) for all employees.
  • Contact between customers and employees, e.g. meetings, must be possible in short form while observing the distance rules.
  • Provide the necessary infrastructure to shift communication to electronic channels also within office premises. Instruct employees to use this form of communication and check compliance.   

Personal protection at the workplace: responsibility of employees

Further to the responsibility of employers, employees themselves must take responsibility to protect not only themselves and their family but also their colleagues. “Employees must follow the instructions and precautions set out by their employer,” says Thomas Suter. And this individual responsibility applies not only to our place of work. Below you’ll find key points to minimise the risk of a new wave of infections:

Journey to and from work

  • Avoid public transport as much as possible. It’s better to travel alone by car, bike or on foot. If you have to travel by public transport, try to avoid peak commuter times.
  • In consultation with your employer, continue to work from home sometimes.
  • If you’re coughing or sneezing, it’s best to wear a mask while using public transport.

Entrances and door handles

  • Current evidence indicates that the coronavirus can survive on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for three days and more. So door handles, hand rails, lift buttons, desks and keyboards should be disinfected regularly.
  • And you should wash your hands immediately after touching such a surface.
  • Touch your face as little as possible. Always wash your hands first after touching a door handle or other surface.

Greeting colleagues

Continue to refrain from shaking hands and other physical greetings (kissing). A friendly smile and a few nice words are just as effective.

Seating arrangements in offices

  • A minimum distance of two metres between employees must be
  • Keep necessary “traffic routes” within the building and between offices short and efficient to avoid unnecessary walking around.

Workspace hygiene

  • Regular hand washing and using disinfectant can cause dry skin, so each workspace should be equipped with moisturising hand cream. This will help prevent dry and broken skin, which can quickly becoming a breeding ground for germs.
  • Always cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm to prevent germs from spreading throughout the office.
  • Use disposable tissues and throw them away in a sealed bin after use. Then wash your hands immediately.

Lunch break

  • Observe the recommendations of the FOPH with regard to group size (maximum of five people and distance of two metres).

Warning: misconception!

Many people still think that the measures taken by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) as a result of the corona pandemic are exaggerated. Many are also convinced that they are not particularly at risk of infection anyway. For a young, healthy person, the risk is indeed not very high, but thinking like this can quickly cause people to be lax about the safety precautions. “Particularly in offices where a lot of young people work, this can quickly lead to new centres of viruses and chains of infection,” warns Thomas Suter.

The whole population would suffer as a result, particularly vulnerable people over 65 and other high-risk groups with pre-existing conditions. “We all have close family and friends in this high-risk group, which makes it all the more important to stick by the rules,” says Suter. Ultimately, young people who flout the rules would also harm themselves. If the reported cases of COVID-19 start to rise again after an initial easing of the lockdown measures, the Federal Council will have to tighten the measures again immediately, and it would be painful to lose our newly regained freedoms again.