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Your office may have dropped its COVID safety measures, but these 4 strategies will help lower your risk of getting sick at work

September 16, 2022, 2:30 PM UTC
two women sitting outside talking
Conducting one-on-ones outdoors is one way to help cut your COVID risk.
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

For Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Apple, and other financial and tech businesses, Labor Day marked the beginning of a push for workers to return to office. This change has sparked protests and pushback from employees, especially considering that many of these companies have also suspended their COVID safety protocols, including routine testing, mask mandates, and vaccination requirements.

Public health experts who specialize in occupational settings say that the onus to keep employees safe should be on employers. “Relying on individual controls for workplace exposures is typically what we consider to be the weakest of controls and not what we want to see workplaces relying on,” says Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington. However, there are steps you can take to decrease your risk of infection and serious disease.

Stay up to date on vaccines

First off, make sure you’re vaccinated and up to date on all boosters. The FDA recently authorized a new vaccine booster that specifically takes aim at the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants that sparked the latest summer wave. Data on the effectiveness of the new booster isn’t out yet, but evidence from past waves overwhelmingly shows that vaccines and boosters significantly reduce the risk of severe disease and death.  

Wear a mask

The second most important thing you can do is continue to mask, even if no one else is. According to one analysis, a well-fitting N95 can protect you from catching COVID-19 during close contact with an unmasked infected person for over an hour, so definitely wear one if you’re having a one-on-one or are in a group meeting. And depending on your relationship with your team, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask them to wear a mask too when you’re meeting face-to-face. If both people are masked, that protection can last up to six hours.

“A high-quality, well-fitting mask that provides both good fit and good filtration still remains one of the best ways to individually protect yourself against COVID-19,” Baker says. “Of course, the benefit is increased when everybody is masking, but particularly for high-quality masks—N95s, KN95s, and KF94s—they have always been protective of the wearer.”

A well-fitting N95 (or KN95 or KF94) will filter out 95% of particles that are 0.3 microns in size, and with larger particles it performs even better. (Scientists think that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is carried in airborne particles that range in size from 0.3 to 3 microns.)  

As a rule, straps that go over the head are better than ones that go around the ears. If you can’t wear a mask (like while you’re eating), consider skipping the office common area and take your lunch outside or somewhere less crowded.

Prioritize ventilation

The third major pillar of COVID safety is air filtration and ventilation. There are two main methods of improving indoor air quality: One is replacing the air with new air from outside; the other is cleaning the air that recirculates through the building. The simplest way to add ventilation is to open a window, so if that’s possible in your office, do this whenever you can. For office buildings where the windows are sealed, air filtration through the HVAC system is critical.

Ask your employer if the building’s HVAC system has been updated since the start of the pandemic. Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder who specializes in air quality, advises office buildings use a filter rated MERV 11 or 13 (pre-pandemic, most buildings used a MERV 8). Similar to assessing masks, MERV ratings—which stands for “minimum efficiency reporting value”—tell you how efficiently the filter removes particles of a certain size. MERV 8 is great at removing big particles, like dust, but not so much microscopic viral particles. MERV 11 and 13 are much better at removing those 0.3-to-3-micron particles where SARS-CoV-2 lives.

If your company didn’t update its HVAC filters, or if you frequently share a small office or conference room with other people, consider purchasing a personal air cleaner. “A localized air cleaner is really helpful at reducing local transmission risk,” Miller says. “It just needs to be big enough to clean a reasonable amount of air that is in the space you’re occupying.”

As with masks, there are independent groups that review and certify air cleaners. Miller recommends the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which has a website of certified air cleaners and the room size they’ll work for.

Communicate with your company and your team

Finally, if you’re really worried about your company’s COVID-19 policy (maybe you or a family member are high-risk), talk to an HR representative. The HR team might be able to offer special accommodations for extenuating circumstances, for instance, making allowances so that you can still work at home or have a hybrid schedule. If you do need to be in the office, perhaps they can move your desk to a less busy area. 

Similarly, talk to your team about your concerns—there may be other people who also want to take extra precautions. Your manager may allow you to  join large meetings virtually instead of crowding into a conference room. Suggest conducting one-on-ones or client meetings outside the office, maybe on a walk or at an outdoor coffee shop. Same for after-hours work events—request an outdoor venue if possible. The goal is to limit your potential exposure as much as possible.

At the end of the day, says Jim Link, chief human resources officer for the Society for Human Resources Management, open communication between employees and employers about expectations around a safe return to the workplace is critical.

“That communication back-and-forth really opens the lines to trying to make the best decision for the culture of that company, the work that needs to get done, the success of that business, and the employees’ needs and desires and capabilities,” Link says. “That discourse and dialogue we believe will produce the best outcome for both the organization and for the employees within it.”

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