Effective cleaning and decontamination are at the heart of keeping workplaces ‘Covid secure’ as well as, critically, in ensuring employees feel confident and safe about being in a physical workspace. Shaun Doak outlines the crucial decontamination steps required for a safe, sustained return to work.
The past few months have seen the gradual return of furloughed staff and those who have been working from home being encouraged back into the physical workplace.
About the author
Shaun Doak is chief executive of REACT Specialist Cleaning
Occupational health practitioners will, of course, be on the front line of this return-to-work process, in particular ensuring that employees feel confident that their workplaces are safe and ‘Covid secure’.
This, naturally, means ensuring extra precautions have been taken to provide employees with safe, clean and Covid-free work environments, and that this has been effectively communicated. Alongside this, it is important that individuals understand the risks of returning to workspaces, and how to protect themselves, their loved ones and the public from Covid-19.
By now, we are all, probably, very aware that Covid-19 is spread via direct contact/droplet contamination, and so one of the most important mitigating factors workplaces can put in place is to ensure the quality of cleaning and hygiene regimes.
Communicating steps individuals can take
Whilst it is advisable to be outsourcing the initial deep clean of a workplace to a specialist company, one that has the expertise to complete thorough, reliable cleaning, there are steps individuals can take to ensure a safe environment which, again, it can be important to communicate.
To clean effectively, it is important to be wiping down surfaces with a pH neutral cleaning solution first, such as warm soapy water, to remove lingering dirt and dust to which the virus can be absorbed.
Then, apply a virucidal disinfectant, one certified to be effective in disabling coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV-2. When doing this, it is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, such as “contact times” and when to reapply.
There are, of course, many disinfectants on the market. It is important, however, to be aware that the most common, containing chlorine compounds, can cause more harm than good when used incorrectly, such as health issues and discolouration of surfaces.
As a safer choice, environmentally friendly alternatives can be just as effective. Transmissible viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, can remain stable on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours, so it is especially important to be consistently cleaning high-touch surfaces and objects, such as desks, light switches, touch screens and doorknobs.
Whilst more intense cleaning methods, such as “fogging”, have some advantages (mainly greater contact time), they can provide poor soil removal, and no residual protection once the disinfectant dries out. Fogging, therefore, is only advisable in specific circumstances, and there are certainly more effective ways employers can deal with SARS-CoV-2.
The use of UV lights, though, can be beneficial as part of a deep clean. UVC, with its high energy, has been proven to destroy similar coronaviruses to SARS-CoV-2, and UVC robots can be useful for decontaminating areas quickly and efficiently, moving room by room for minimal disruption to continuous working.
Like most cleaning products, however, the use of UVC has not yet been clinically tested against the particular strain that causes Covid-19. The use of UVC can also be dangerous, damaging eyes and skin, so its application needs careful care with the use of appropriate PPE. This is why it is advisable to outsource the initial clean to a specialist company, then follow up with regular cleaning in-house.
Effective protocols and risk management
Ultimately, confidence is key: the confidence of the employer that their employees are being kept safe, the confidence of employees that this is indeed the case, and the confidence of occupational health practitioners that correct and effective cleaning protocols are being followed and risk is being managed properly.
To that end, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) testing is an effective way to ensure workplaces have been thoroughly cleaned. These tests capture ATP molecules (an indicator of biological residues) with a swab that is placed into a “luminator” device which reads the amount of ATP present.
The more ATP, then the more bacteria, virus or product residue that is active on the surface. ATP testing is strongly recommended to give confidence in the cleaning methods in place, and our company, for example, uses them before and after every deep clean.
Of course, different workplaces require different levels and frequencies of cleaning, depending on issues such as footfall, contact levels and the make-up of the area. Where there is a risk of infected people entering the workplace, or an inability to socially distance, for example, additional precautions must be taken.
Disposable nitrile gloves, to be discarded after each consultation, should be provided for employees, with hand-washing strongly encouraged before and after use.
Disposable gowns should be used if the workplace requires employees to touch patients. Clothes should then be removed and washed immediately when returning home; wash at 60°C (140°F), or 40°C (104°F) with a mild bleach-based detergent, to kill any trace of the virus. It goes without question that carrying out a risk assessment is a great way to identify the additional needs of a specific workplace.
Where it’s not possible to distance employees, do everything practical to manage the transmission risk. We, for example, recommend the following five actions:
- Consider whether the activity is essential for business to operate.
- Keep the activity as short as possible.
- Use barriers to separate people.
- Stagger arrival/departure times.
- Reduce the number of people each person has contact with by using a “fixed teams” or “partnering” system.
It is also self-evident that encouraging good personal hygiene is crucial to preventing the spread of the virus, and that this is especially critical within healthcare settings. Whilst hand sanitiser is a quick and easy way to clean hands, washing hands thoroughly with soap has a greater efficacy in cleaning away viral contaminants.
If soap and water are not easily accessible, it is imperative to make sure hand sanitiser stations (non-touch preferably) are provided around the workplace. These should contain sanitiser with at least 70% ethanol concentration.
Employers are responsible for providing safe and healthy workplaces, especially post-Covid. Providing training on work-related risks and how to protect against them is key, and occupational health may have a key role to play in this, of course.
However, it is also important employers listen to their staff, especially where childcare or vulnerable-relative responsibilities are involved. It is important, too, to give employees the opportunity to work from home if needed, as well as ensuring employees have the correct equipment to do so.
To conclude, then, we’d argue the minimum precautions employers should be taking to prepare the workspace for staff, and then maintain hygiene and infection control, are:
- Introduce hand sanitising stations strategically around the workplace and at entrance/exit points.
- Reconfigure workspaces to ensure social distancing and, if needed, introduce screens to protect staff. Set up a one-way-traffic system to further maintain the required distancing
- Ensure suitable facial masks and/or visors are provided, especially where employees are in constant contact with the public.
- Introduce infra-red digital thermometer testing on entry to the workspace (daily).
- Encourage rota-based working to ensure office numbers are reduced and monitored.
- Implement UVC wand decontamination of high-touch points such as handsets, keyboards, doorknobs and desks, at the end/beginning of each working day.
- Ensure the incumbent cleaning regime is more frequent and thorough, taking into consideration the current guidelines from Public Health England.
- Carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment in line with Health and Safety Executive guidelines and that you share results with employees/publish on the intranet/internet.