By Dr. Henning Ansorg, M.D., FACP,   Health OfficerCounty of Santa Barbara,  Department of Public Health 

Whether you are an employee or an employer, if you are looking at returning to the office environment, there are several changes you will likely need to make for the safety of yourself, your co-workers and your customers. 

Recently in Santa Barbara County, we have seen an increase from 4% to 11% in positive COVID cases in the office workplace.  The “new normal” dictates that reopening offices will look a lot different, and will require an adjustment to get used to face masks, social distancing, plexiglass partitions, and more.  Here are some best practices for both employees and employers as people begin to return to the office. 

For Employees: 

Avoid commuting with others as it automatically puts you in close proximity to one another. 

Stay off crowded elevators.  If you work in a building with elevators, take the stairs, if you can. If not, simply ask people if they can wait for the next one if you feel vulnerable. 

Avoid communal break areas as these shared spaces are also high touch areas. 

Make it a practice to clean your equipment including keyboards, phones and mice regularly, and definitely between each user if desks are shared.  

The best protection against the virus is personal hygiene. Washing your hands with soap and water regularly, which provides excellent protection against the virus. When you can’t wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead. 

Always maintain a distance of six feet from other people to protect yourself from airborne droplets. 

Wear your mask.  The only places you should be unmasked indoors is in your own personal office or partitioned cubicles when you are at least six feet from others. Even when masked, practice social distancing by staying six feet away from co-workers or customers and spacing out desks accordingly.  

Please practice good respiratory hygiene by always coughing and sneezing into a tissue or the crook of your elbow. This prevents viral particles from spreading over surfaces and toward people around you. 

Wash your clothes and masks every day after coming home from work.  

If you have any symptoms, don’t go to work. Get tested as soon as possible and stay at home until you receive the results. 

Please keep in mind that you may feel safe among your office co-workers that you are with every day, but it is very important to remain vigilant with these best practices as we are all still in a world-wide pandemic. 

For Employers: 

Make sure each employee in a shared office has at least six feet to themselves. If this isn’t possible, it would be a good idea to stagger staff or allow them to continue working from home for now. 

Small offices often have insufficient airflow to dilute the virus, and, if an infectious person is present, could end up with high concentrations of viral particles over the course of an hour or so. Conversely, higher rates of airflow combined with poor ventilation can also lead to infection, as droplets can be carried further. 

So where possible, increase ventilation and air exchange in open-plan workspaces. Increasing the ratio of fresh air intake to recirculated air can reduce the concentration of virus particles in air-conditioned spaces. Even simply opening windows can reduce viral spread. 

It is vital that cleaning protocols be increased. Where once or twice weekly visit from a contracted cleaner to vacuum the floors, empty the bins and quickly wipe over surfaces was considered sufficient, during COVID-19 you need to ensure a thorough daily clean of all surfaces. 

Frequently touched surfaces, such as desks, light switches, door handles, phones, staircase railings, touch screens, keypads, taps and toilets should be given special attention and may require more frequent cleaning. 

If a worker becomes sick with respiratory symptoms, isolate them from other staff and arrange for them to go home. Advise them to get tested for COVID-19 and not return to work until they have a negative result. 

Similarly, reinforce the message, “if you’re sick, get tested and don’t come to work.” Now more than ever, the culture of “soldiering on” while unwell puts others at risk. 

Finally, require that employees wear face masks at work. This can limit the disease from being spread by coughs and sneezes. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published comprehensive guidelines for businesses to follow in order to protect employees. Businesses and employers can prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19 within the workplace. Operation decisions should be based on both the level of disease transmission in the community and your readiness to protect the safety and health of your employees and customers. 

Stay safe Santa Barbara County! 

Click to download infographics for your office:

Dr. Henning Ansorg, M.D., FACP is a graduate of Justus-Liebig-University Medical School Giessen, Germany. He completed Residency training in Munich, Germany and Tucson, AZ and is board certified in Family Practice (Germany) and Internal Medicine (USA). Dr. Ansorg is a Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and is on the Medical Staff at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. He has many years of experience in different clinical settings including 10 years of Private Practice and Urgent Care in Munich, Germany, as well as 11 years of Internal Medicine/Geriatrics in Arizona, as well as 4 years at the Santa Barbara County Health Care Center. Dr. Ansorg has served as Public Health Officer for Santa Barbara County since April 2019.