As cities begin to relax their lockdowns, you may be looking at a return to your workplace in the next several weeks, if you haven’t gone back already. You’re probably, understandably, concerned about contracting coronavirus—but that isn’t the only way your once-dormant office or worksite can make you sick. Here are the most disturbing hazards to look out for.
Office buildings aren’t meant to be shut down for months, and that can cause health problems when workers return, The New York Times recently reported. One threat: Bacteria that has built up in stagnant plumbing like pipes, taps and toilets. One of the most dangerous is Legionella pneumophila, a bacterium that causes the respiratory illness known as Legionnaires’ Disease, which could be released when you flush a toilet, use a water fountain or fill the coffee pot.
This crucial step toward preventing coronavirus can, ironically, disperse Legionella through the air via water droplets when you turn on the tap. If inhaled, it can make you sick. Building managers can prevent this by adding disinfectant to a building’s water system, the Times reports.
The office item that’s a lifeline for many of us could be a coronavirus hotspot: The caffeine station in the breakroom. Researchers at Arizona State University studying disease transmission in offices put a synthetic germ on a company’s coffee pot handle; within hours, it had spread to nearly every surface in the office. Make sure this communal surface is cleaned regularly, and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after every cup you pour.
One of the advantages of office life is being able to dig into the homemade treats du jour left in the break room, dip into the receptionist’s candy dish or indulge in pizza Fridays. But sharing food can spread coronavirus, and it’s wise to avoid it for the time being. In fact, last week New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo specifically advised offices reopening in his state to prohibit food-sharing.
If your office’s HVAC system involves a cooling tower, Legionella bacteria—which is water-borne—can hide out in air conditioning ducts. Ask your building manager if the ducts have been recently inspected and cleaned.
Remember, flu season starts in late fall. It peaks in the winter as people spend more time indoors. During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to get a seasonal flu shot—it won’t protect you against Covid-19, but it can reduce your chances of getting the flu by about 40%. That will prevent you from using medical resources needed by people who are battling more serious illnesses like coronavirus.
Closed-down offices may have given dust and mold a chance to build up, which can make life miserable for people who are allergic to either. And the sneezing and coughing caused by allergies can spread coronavirus if the allergic person is infected but unaware. Make sure the surfaces in your office are thoroughly vacuumed and dusted. Air purifiers with HEPA filters can help. If you’re allergic and severely bothered, you might want to wear your face mask indoors to cut down on inhaled allergens.
Frequently used surfaces like elevator buttons are a common vector for colds and flu during the best of times; now, they’re a coronavirus threat. When pressing, use your knuckle or the back of your hand. Several companies also sell gadgets that you can use to press buttons or touchscreens without using your fingers.
To reduce your chances of getting coronavirus, do what you should have already been doing: wash your hands for 20 seconds using soap and water (or hand sanitizer if clean soap and water is not available); stay six feet away from others, if your office can accommodate that; don’t touch high-touch surfaces; and wear a mask if you can. Nothing will ensure you’re 100% safe but these measures can protect yourself—and your co-workers.
You’ve seen the headlines about “aggressive rats.” “Some jurisdictions have reported an increase in rodent activity as rodents search for new sources of food,” reported the CDC recently, about rats’ reaction to COVID-19’s closure of restaurants. “Environmental health and rodent control programs may see an increase in service requests related to rodents and reports of unusual or aggressive rodent behavior.” Same could go for your office, resulting in, if you’re bitten, “rate bite fever” (fever, vomiting, headache, joint pain, rash). Other cities have reported angry raccoons.
You already know not to eat perishable food you left in your office fridge way back in March 2020; it’s rotten by now. But also be careful of the communal milk or snacks provided by your company. Certain food deliveries have been disrupted, which could result in less-than-fresh offerings.
Be careful out there—and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.