14th May, 2020
Cross infection isn't something most workplaces usually need to worry about. But with the current coronavirus crisis looking like it will be changing the way we work for a while, many workplaces are looking forward and wondering how they can return to work safely.
Cross infection isn't something most workplaces usually need to worry about. Unless you work in a hospital or health care setting, you might not have given it much thought in your work environment before. But with the current coronavirus crisis looking like it will be changing the way we work for a while, many workplaces are looking forward and wondering how they can return to work safely.
In this post, when we talk about cross infection, we are talking about the spread of an infection from one person to another, either directly (person to person), or indirectly (via contaminated surfaces).
Cross infection is the transfer of harmful microorganisms, usually bacteria and viruses. The spread of infections can occur between people, pieces of equipment, or within the body.
The health of your team and customers, and anyone else who comes into contact with your business operations, may now rely more than ever on the prevention of cross infection. Right now, there's a new infectious disease spreading in the UK and worldwide. We know that for some people in all age groups, but particularly the elderly and those with other health conditions, this can be serious, and even fatal.
To comply with current government guidance, if you do need people to return to work (and they cannot work from home), you need to have things in place for the prevention of cross infection. At this time, during the current crisis, you should carry out a coronavirus risk assessment to identify the risks within your workplace, and how you can control them. You need to make sure that it is safe to return to work. But even if things get back to normal after the COVID-19 crisis, preventing the spread of viruses and bacteria at work is good for the health of your team and can prevent outbreaks of other illnesses.
So how can we prevent cross infection and stop the spread of illnesses at work? Well, here are 9 quick ways you can prevent cross infection at work.
The easiest way to prevent cross infection is to keep people apart. Some illnesses (including the coronavirus and flu) are infectious for a time before someone develops symptoms. And some people never develop symptoms, but can still carry a virus or bacteria to other people. You should assume that everyone is infected because anyone could be.
What's now known as social distancing is in place across the UK, and for the last 8 weeks, we have been told by the Government to stay at least 2m away from people outside of our households. When people return to work, social distancing measures should be put in place to stop people coming into close contact with others, where possible.
At work this may mean changing the layout of your workplace, changing shifts, staggering start times, moving people and work areas and other changes to maintain a safe distance. For some extra guidance read the blog post on social distancing at work.
Hand washing is one of the first control measures that was put in place during the COVID-19 outbreak. And that advice remains. We use our hands almost everything we do, flicking switches, opening doors, unpacking boxes, handling equipment. Our hands have been there, done that. Regular handwashing with soap and warm water helps to remove bacteria and virus particles from your hands.
If you don't have soap and warm water available at certain points during the day, the next best option is hand sanitiser.
Cleaning surfaces is another important step in preventing cross infection. When we cough or sneeze, we can transmit any infection we have to the air, and these germs can land on surrounding surfaces. Gross. What's more, depending on the type of germ and type of surface, it can survive on that surface for hours and even days. If someone else comes along and touches that surface, the germs can spread to them.
So stepping up your cleaning regime, particularly to high touch items, is vital to prevent cross infection spreading through surfaces.
Even with cleaning surfaces and regularly washing your hands, unless your hands have just been washed, you should assume they carry germs. Because they probably do. But the germs we are worrying about here can't enter your body through your skin. The most common route of entry is your face. When you touch your face, germs can enter through your mouth, nose and eyes.
And we touch our faces a lot, often unconsciously. When we eat, drink, scratch, think, or just rest our heads in our hands. Are you touching your face now? Did you just do it? So try to be aware and get out of the habit of touching your face. It's a quick and easy way to help stop yourself getting ill.
If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, or flu, or any other type of infectious disease, you should be at home, self-isolating. This is especially important during a pandemic, but also a good way to protect the health of your colleagues during normal times too.
The saying "a problem shared is a problem halved" doesn't apply to illness.
If you are working in a high-risk environment, and social distancing cannot be maintained, you may need to consider face coverings to reduce the risk of cross infection. The latest government guidance at the time of this post recommends that face coverings and masks may be beneficial in enclosed spaces where social distancing cannot be applied.
They may be beneficial in places where it is hard to follow maintain social distancing measures. This applies when using public transport, such as trains, buses and metro systems, or when visiting shops.
There are no specific COVID-19 rules on wearing masks at work, and they are not a replacement for social distancing and other measures. So each workplace should assess the risk and decide if masks are required as an added precaution. Other types of PPE, like gloves and disposable or washable overalls, might also be considered in high-risk environments where the risk of cross infection is great. But as with all PPE, it needs to be worn correctly to be effective. So think about training and fit testing where PPE is needed.
Screens may be used to create a physical barrier between groups of people in your workplace. This can be useful in places where your team may come into contact with others, and cannot maintain a social distance, eg. retail and trade counters, customer service points etc. Barriers might also be used to keep people apart, to enforce social distancing, and to create new access routes.
Germs can't pass through solid screens, but like any high contact surface, they must be regularly cleaned especially if different people will come into contact with the barrier throughout the shift.
We often share our workplace with others. Hot desks, printers, photocopiers, phones, tools and equipment can be used by multiple people throughout a shift. And of course, these surfaces can spread germs and infection.
So think about your work activities, and what gets shared with others. Schedule work so that cleaning can take place in between. Thoroughly wipe down and clean equipment with a suitable cleaning solution before use.
Spread of infection can often happen from particles that come from our mouths and noses, when we cough, sneeze, talk and even breathe. If people can work facing away from each other, this is another step that helps reduce the risk of cross infection.
Entrance and exit routes are another area of your workplace where peoples paths can literally cross. Creating one-way routes, and keeping people apart physically in these areas, helps people get to, and leave, their work area safely.
The rules and regulations surrounding the current coronavirus outbreak are likely to change as the situation develops and the COVID-19 risk level changes throughout the pandemic. The UK Government is releasing guidance that applies to workplaces across the UK, and this will be updated as things progress. Make sure you stay up to date here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19
Download the free coronavirus toolbox talk to raise awareness of the control measures you can use to help slow the spread of the virus. And our free coronavirus risk assessment template can be used to help you control the risks if you can't work from home.
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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