Guest Post by Michael Gao, M.D., Co-Founder and CEO, Haven Diagnostics

No one wants to get infected with COVID-19, but not everyone faces the same risk. Some people have a higher chance of getting exposed to the virus depending on their occupation and work setting. It’s important to understand these risks and how they can affect businesses.

Since the start of the pandemic, the nation has shined a spotlight on the risks faced by essential workers. These frontline heroes range from healthcare workers to grocery store clerks who interact with the public every day.

Companies with employees who could work from home made the shift to contain infection and follow local restrictions and regulations. However, working from home is a temporary solution, one that may not be possible – or desirable – in the long term.

Understanding the difference in the risk of exposure between different job environments is key to a safe return to the office.

Office Workers vs. Other Occupations

Not all workers have the same risk of coming in contact with the COVID-19 virus. The U.S. Department of Labor offers guidelines to help workers and employers determine which job tasks come with a high risk of exposure and which ones fall in a lower-risk category.

There are four levels of risk:

  • Very High – workers in regular contact with patients known or suspected to have COVID-19 (ex. healthcare and morgue workers)
  • High – workers with high potential exposure to known or suspected COVID-19 sources (ex. healthcare or medical transport workers) 
  • Medium – workers with frequent contact to people who may be infected with COVID-19 (ex. retail and grocery workers, call centers or factory settings)
  • Lower – workers who have minimal contact with the public or other coworkers (office workers in low-density settings)

Most office environments will fall within the medium or lower exposure risk guidelines. This means employees who work from an office setting have a medium to low risk of coming in contact with someone infected with the virus.

Understanding and mitigating the risks for workers is essential for companies looking to return part or all of their workforce to the office in 2021.

Risk Difference Within the Office Environment

A paramedic or a retail worker will almost certainly have a higher level of risk compared to an office worker. Yet even within the office environment, there are different levels of risk, depending on a person’s job description or office setting.

Companies need to evaluate the duties and office environment for their entire team to determine how best to protect their workforce. Painting everyone within an office with the same brush is a recipe for disaster.

For example, a receptionist will have a different exposure and risk factors compared to someone who works in the back office within the same company. Call center workers often work in tight quarters without many barriers to the spread of the virus. In addition, they talk on the phone the entire workday, projecting (potentially infected) droplets into the surrounding air.

Just because someone has a higher risk of exposure doesn’t mean they can’t return to the office and perform their job safely. Putting the right policies and procedures in place can ensure employers minimize the risk for their employees.

Companies need to understand all relevant risk factors, communicate them clearly to employees and address the ones that will make the biggest safety impact.

When Can Employees Return Safely to the Office?

The quick answer is: it depends on several factors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for returning to work to help employers determine how to protect their workforce from COVID-19 in an office building setting.

The long list of guidelines and recommendations for the CDC can seem overwhelming.

Not sure where to start? Consider partnering with a leader in pandemic risk management to review your company’s policies, employee job roles, physical location(s) and other variables to model your workplace’s unique risk environment to help you return your team safely back to the office.

Key questions include:

  • How can employees return safely to the office?
  • What should an employer do to assess the risk of employees being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace?
  • How can employees be better informed about the data- and science-based risk exposures they face, and how company-wide compliance with policies and protocols can make a measurable difference in reducing the team’s risk?
  • What should I do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

Dr. Michael Gao is Co-Founder and CEO of Haven Diagnostics.