As case counts of the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant continue to break records, keeping employees healthy and safe is a greater challenge than ever.
For essential businesses that remain open, meeting this challenge means understanding Omicron's unique characteristics and enhancing your control strategies, says Sara Lovell, WSPS Occupational Hygienist.
"We know that Omicron spreads through the air and symptoms may be milder, which may make it harder to recognize when someone is infected, and easier to pass the virus on to others."
These characteristics heighten the need for better masking, more vigilant screening, and improved ventilation to reduce or eliminate respiratory droplets containing the virus, among other considerations. Sara offers suggestions on how to adapt controls to help reduce the spread of Omicron.
Focus on these 10 strategies
Workplaces should already have a COVID-19 workplace safety plan and multi-layered controls for dealing with COVID-19, including physical distancing. For Omicron, maintain this approach but take a closer look at these 10 strategies, advises Sara.
- Stay on top of compliance requirements and resources available through your local public health unit and the provincial government. As part of this, ensure your workplace complies with recently introduced restrictions and closures under the modified Stage 2 of Ontario's Roadmap to Reopen.
- Reduce the risk. "Can people work from home right now? If they can, do it. At a minimum, try to reduce the potential airborne hazard by minimizing the number of people in the workplace." Also, review, update and enforce all administrative controls, such as physical distancing and work bubbles.
- Ensure effective ventilation. It's essential to supply clean air to workspaces whether it be fresh air or filtered air. Here are some ways to improve ventilation:
- Upgrade filters in your HVAC system. Switch to a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter if your system can handle it, or to a filter with a MERV 13 rating.
- Ensure six air changes per hour (in office settings). Reach out to your HVAC specialists to help you do this.
- Bring in more fresh air. Public Health Ontario recommends ventilating with outdoor air as much as practically possible to minimize or avoid recirculating the air. This applies in winter too.
- Use portable HEPA filter units if there is no HVAC system. "Clean recycled air by pushing it through the HEPA filter units. This would be ideal for smaller spaces that do not have forced air ventilation."
For more ideas, see 10 ways to reduce COVID-19 exposure with better ventilation.
- Actively screen employees and visitors. Many workplaces have been relying on passive screening - having employees and visitors self-monitor before arriving at the workplace. Active screening involves asking questions about possible exposure and taking temperatures before people enter the facility, explains Sara.
- Use the most current government screening tools, as they have evolved throughout the pandemic. Check regularly for updates.
- Offer rapid antigen testing. While not as sensitive as laboratory tests, they can be useful in detecting infected people, including those who are asymptomatic. Sign up for free test kits at the Provincial Antigen Screening Program. Small and mid-sized businesses can also access the COVID-19 Rapid Screening Initiative at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. Because of high demand, supply may be temporarily limited.
- Use more effective masks. Public Health Ontario recommends using masks offering stronger protection, such as N95 respirators, medical masks, or a high quality, 3-layer cloth mask. "Not everyone may need an N95," says Sara. "To determine the best source control, conduct a risk assessment and understand how employees interact with each other." Where appropriate, use masks able to filter out 0.3 micron particulates - achievable only with mask materials rated or tested for their performance. This brings us to respirators such as the N95, KN95 or KF94.
- Ensure employees wear their masks effectively. Fit is one of the most important aspects for this control to be successful, along with a high level of filtration and proper use. For example, ensure workers wear their mask so that it covers their entire nose, mouth and chin at all times. Inspect the mask for a tight fit with no gaps, especially near the bridge of the nose. Workers with facial hair will be less likely to achieve a good fit. A recent study of N95 (respirator), KN95, KF94, surgical/procedure, and cloth masks showed declines in overall filtration efficiency as a function of beard length. Properly fitted N95 respirators showed the least decline; procedure and cotton face masks the most. *
- Encourage employees to get vaccinated, including booster shots. "Vaccines continue to offer protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death," says Sara.
- Promote prevention away from work. Share with employees best practices during commutes and at home. Check your local transit authority and public health unit for tips.
How we can help
- Why workplace screening is more essential than ever (article)
- COVID-19 safety checklist
- 6 ways to ensure your COVID-19 communications build trust (article)
- COVID-19 Workplace Risk Assessment and Safety Plan (e-Course)
- COVID-19 Microsite, offering critical information and resources, including checklists, webinars, articles, eCourses, and more.
- Coronavirus-Preparedness-Employers-Employees (e-course)
- Pandemic Planning (e-course)
- COVID-19: Help for businesses in Ontario
- COVID-19 Resources for farmers and agri-food businesses
* Prince, S.E., Chen, H., Tong, H. et al. "Assessing the effect of beard hair lengths on face masks used as personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic," Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology
, 31, 953–960 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41370-021-00337-1
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.