By Darren Southgate
Cleanliness is next to godliness (plus hand sanitiser)
When I was a child, I went to a school built in Edwardian times, which celebrated it’s eightieth birthday when I was there, where we enacted a day in the life of a child in that period with Indian ink quill pens, rote learning and receiving punishments (only play-acted of course). My lasting memory was not wearing funny cloths or messing about in the playground but the idea that ‘cleanliness was next to godliness’, recorded in a sermon by John Wesley in 1778, as well as ancient texts (found in ancient Hebrew or Babylonian regions)!
Having just written our COVID-19 workplace strategy, I’d have to acknowledge how we have returned to a time where people in the workplace have more; more space around them to occupy (safely), more facilities for cleaning (themselves and their workspace surfaces particularly), and more acceptance around ‘personal space’ when greeting each other! The right amount of space has been under attack due to pressure for greater profits.
So, what is it about modern office design and usage that is not compatible with COVID-19 and cleanliness? In a crowded place like an open plan office where ‘paid work’ is communicated through talking, typing and presenting, the office is a repository for the virus, suspended in confined spaces like meeting rooms, toilets and corridors or on surfaces, shared by all employees, via common surfaces like doors handles, taps, keyboards, hot-desks, sinks, light switches and the like. There are plenty of studies which also show how often we touch our face and in association after touching a door handle for example which is worrying! Interestingly, stainless steel handles can sustain bacteria whilst copper is a destroyer of virus DNA.
The temperature and humidity inside an office is set perfectly to sustain its existence for certainly 24 hours decreasing rapidly after 48 hours. Handles for example that get wet or retain moisture are at a higher risk of transmitting the virus, so be aware of toilet doors. The temperature needs to be about 20 degrees, this is normal inside air temperature.
Of course, offices tend to remove or reduce solar gain and direct sunlight as this is problematic for computer screens and the overheating of a space. COVID-19 does not like sunlight! Internal corridors and toilet blocks are perfectly situated away from sunlight!
The most effective way to protect yourself is to wash your hands regularly. Hand sanitisers can also be used. Facemasks have a mixed response due to how we put them on, take them off, wash them and reuse them. Soap is both very powerful and effective; the hydrophilic and phobic ends work in water to effectively pop the surface of the virus molecules and its active inner content is washed way.
Notwithstanding all of this, we have largely spent 5 months working from home and now starting to see a return to our office workspaces. What have been the effects to date coping with COVID-19 in our plans for a return to our workplaces? Clearly getting to an office is challenging controlling our exposure to COVID-19 on public transport even where wearing a mandatory face covering to protect others from any aerosol infection you may emit as a carrier or as an infected person are in place. Clearly trying to minimise surface transmission is difficult in public spaces where automatic access barriers do not exist for example, and door handles are the only options. On arrival at your office, cleaning one’s hands by washing them or by using a sanitiser product is a first step reducing our risks to each other and isolating one’s outdoor garments is also important. At this juncture, you may have stairs, escalators or lifts to negotiate. Lifts are very difficult to mitigate against as they represent a confined space and often smaller than 2m in dimension. Even with a reduced separation distance to 1m, lifts are operating super inefficiently in terms of passenger numbers. Escalators are less of an issue as they travel in one direction and distancing can be regulated easily. Stairs are different again as crossing on the stairs brings individuals together, but common sense should prevail if more than one stair exists. Working on the twentieth floor is a real problem!
Once inside your office space, we have seen 30-40% reduction in workspace utilisation due to social distancing and up to 50% where an office has a 110-120% capacity issue with hotdesking arrangements for staff. The last 20 years has seen a trend of intensification and work pattern flexibility, all now being unravelled due to COVID-19.
Daily fixed bookings for desk spaces have been created in the lockdown period, so only one person per space per day between deep cleans. Cleaning products are available and being used regularly! Given how many germs are said to exist on your keyboard, I think general awareness of hygiene has improved during lockdown and therefore just maybe other issues will drop off during this pandemic.
Worryingly we touch our faces frequently during the day as part of our innate response to the world, other humans and our own needs, and so we are susceptible to germs. How many of us are retraining our brains to stop these actions? Several studies show we touch our faces anywhere between 15-25 times per hour but less so in public maybe as low as 3-4 times per hour, maybe we are more socially conscious of our actions in public, especially when indoor contact is associated with our noses and mucous!
During your working day, you will be exposed to many receptacles, stood in confined spaces and communicating with others, this enhances your risks. It seems to me, the only sensible approach is to regularly wash your hands, do not touch your face, wear a mask if possible and avoid those that are inconsiderate. Clearly you may not be able to avoid a person who has just sneezed in a room or space but leaving courteously is better than getting something as serious as COVID-19. In the end a vaccine is essential, but I think it will only return us to a less hygienic way of life, complacency and ill-discipline, we should try to remember what it means to be hygienic from this pandemic.
Spiritual purity is one way of keeping healthy, but fundamentally ‘being clean’ is the basic underlying requirement to general wellbeing. I hope in the coming months, we can revamp an ancient idea to suggest ‘cleanliness in all our actions is proportional to our wellbeing’. Being good, fair, considerate and clean is important for all of us.
Photo by Drew Beamer