Keep your distance: Why we must (metaphorically) come together to stop coronavirus

Health and Safety April 01, 2020

As the world adapts to the new norm while we attempt to curtail the effects of COVID-19 (coronavirus), the UK (among other countries) has entered a time of social distancing. Everyone has now been instructed to stay at home to help stop the spread of the virus, with the exceptions of shopping for basic necessities, one form of exercise a day, medical needs and travelling to and from work if it is not possible to work from home. Those at high risk (over 70s, with underlying health conditions or pregnant) should not leave their home at all and should ask friends, family or neighbours to leave shopping and medicines at their door.

But why is this important?, “But I’m only 25 and young people are low risk”, “But I didn’t touch anything”, “But I don’t have any symptoms” and “But I need to get to work” are all comments we may have heard over the last few weeks. But, as the UK enters lockdown, the importance of social distancing and following government guidelines is hopefully starting to sink in. As we learn more about the virus, we can begin to understand its behaviour and why these measures must be taken to stop it in its tracks and protect our country, our world. Industries are coming together to ensure that their working practices match the government’s guidelines; the environmental industry and RSK’s procedures are no exception.

“But I’m only 25 and young people are low risk”. On 25 March, the BBC published an article, ‘Coronavirus: What’s young people’s risk?’, that outlines that, although younger people are statistically at lower risk, there are exceptions. These exceptions include people with underlying health conditions such as asthma, which can affect people of all ages. Some young people may even have health conditions that they are unaware of and so are oblivious to the risk. Younger people can also spread the virus to others; this is more likely if they have no or very mild symptoms and not realise that they are infectious.

“And coronavirus seems to be considerably more infectious than flu – each person with the virus, on average, passes it on to between two and three other people, experts estimate,” the BBC article states. “Those two or three people can pass it on to another two or three more people each, and so on. This means a seemingly small number of people quickly turns into hundreds and thousands. Social distancing breaks the chain of transmission.”

RSK Human Resources Director Zoe Brunswick comments, “By ensuring that as many of our employees are working from home as possible, and that we are putting measures in place to protect those who still need to be in work, we are playing our part in breaking the chain of transmission. It is a challenging time for all businesses and all industries must stand together and do the right thing.”

“But I didn’t touch anything.” First, are you sure? Door handles, shopping baskets and trolleys, petrol pumps, card machines and cash are all surfaces that could aid the spread of the disease. Although studies are in their early days, a recent analysis found that the virus can remain viable in the air for up to 3 hours, on copper for up to 4 hours, on cardboard up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours, LiveScience has produced a guide.  Second, note the, “in the air for up to 3 hours”; you do not need to have touched anything to enable the spread of the virus. This is why it is vital that you do not go outside in public unless absolutely necessary and, even then, for the minimum time possible and always maintaining a two-metre distance from anyone outside your household.

“Our experience of viral decontamination suggests that viruses, including coronavirus, can remain on surfaces, certainly for hours, if not days,” says RSK Response Managing Director Martin Brannock. “Our decontamination service also includes a fogging system, as COVID-19 can remain viable in the air. So, the best advice is to stay inside whenever possible and, if you do need to go outside, refrain from touching anything. Regular and thorough handwashing and sanitisation are also good practice to protect yourself from the virus.”

You can find out more information about RSK’s coronavirus decontamination service on the RSK website.

“But I don’t have any symptoms.” Again, although research is in its early stages, it is very likely that people infected with coronavirus are contagious before they start to show any symptoms. New Scientist  says, “A study in China suggests that infectiousness starts about 2.5 days before the onset of symptoms, and peaks 15 hours before (medRxiv).” Furthermore, you may show no or very mild symptoms but will still be able to spread the virus to others. Consequently, the latest advice for households living together is that, if one person shows any symptoms, they must self-isolate for 7 days and anyone living in the household must self-isolate for 14 days to ensure the virus has not been passed on.

“But I need to get to work.” Employees and employers should be taking steps to ensure that staff are working from home wherever conceivable. If this is not currently an option, employers should be looking into ways to make it possible, for example, by adapting roles and providing technical support. RSK’s IT team has circulated a specific guidance note for homeworking and is on hand to support any technical issues that the changes may present.

“Moving large numbers of employees that are usually office or site based to home working can be a huge logistical challenge, especially over a short period of time,” comments RSK IT Associate Director Adam Jackson. “Even with careful organisation and planning, there are going to be some hiccups along the way. You have to accept that and provide everyone with the support and guidance that they need to get them set up and working for the foreseeable future and meet any challenges as they come up. At the end of the day, it is a necessary step to protect those employees who can work from home and we must ensure that those that can work from home do so. It may be a challenge, but it is well worth it to keep people safe.”

When it is not possible to work from home, workplaces should be adapted to ensure that all employees are protected. Measures should be taken to maintain a two-metre distance between individuals, hand sanitisers and handwashing facilities must be readily available and enhanced cleaning procedures must be implemented. If appropriate, working rotas should be amended so that the minimum number of people are working in the same area at one time.

“Many of our employees are working from home, but for those who cannot, we have taken the necessary steps to protect them,” explains Envirolab (RSK’s soil and water laboratory) Managing Director John Gustafson. “We have sections taped off on the floors in some areas to ensure those working in the laboratory are two metres apart; rooms have maximum number restrictions; and we have moved some activities into a portable building to ensure employees are spaced out as much as possible. Working patterns have also been adjusted to enable us to work as efficiently as possible while prioritising the safety of our staff and their families. It is a challenge, but we are making things work.”

In addition to continuing necessary laboratory work, some RSK employees are required to carry on with their work on-site. Similar precautions are being implemented in these instances. “First, we assessed the situation on each site using our COVID-19 preparedness checklist and identified whether all the necessary preventive measures, supplies and infection control were in place,” commented CAN (an RSK company) Health, Safety and Environmental Manager Galina Hobson. “Then, we updated the site operating procedure to make sure that the contents are relevant to company specifics. This was issued to all project and site managers who then briefed everyone on-site. Site- and task-specific risk assessments were also completed, supported by RSK’s group field operations risk assessment. We have been working very hard to make sure that all the risks are considered and are constantly in touch with all our site teams to ensure that our employees get all the support they require.”

The fewer people that leave their houses for work or other purposes, the more likely we are to flatten the coronavirus curve. By staying at home whenever possible, we are protecting those who must continue to go into work.

So, enough of the excuses, it is time to come together (metaphorically of course!) to stop coronavirus in its tracks.

You can find the UK’s latest guidelines on coronavirus on the NHS website.