Into the Unknown, Part 3: Productively Returning to Operations

Into the Unknown, Part 3: Productively Returning to Operations

By | October 26, 2020

Finding a pair of plastic gloves, a mask or a disposable wipe lying in the middle of the street is symbolic of how Safety, Sustainability and Productivity are intertwined. People have been using personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfecting products in record numbers as the global pandemic continues, but those tools to keep people safe are also hurting the planet. Similarly, everything organizations do is interconnected. That’s why a focus on Safety, Sustainability and Productivity should always be top of mind, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic, a precipitous drop in oil prices or something else. As COVID-19 cases spike, especially in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, companies have a responsibility to do everything they can to make sure that any worker that walks through the front door can do so as safely as possible while maintaining productivity. In this series, Spark explores these three key areas that companies must address to create a safer, more sustainable and productive world. This article will focus on Productivity. To be clear, Spark is not in any way advising companies to stop any remote work situations they are currently using, but if or when the time comes for workers to return, we simply want companies to do so safely.

Learn how COVID-19 has affected Safety and Sustainability.

While the circumstances are anything but ideal, unfortunately there’s no better example of how Safety, Sustainability and Productivity are interconnected than COVID-19. A breakdown in either Safety or Sustainability directly affects Productivity. When it comes to risk management, communication, data-sharing that breaks down information silos and integration are imperative. As is compliance.

The challenge of combatting COVID-19 is the battle takes place on many fronts: from the home to the workplace to travel and leisure and more. Until there’s a vaccine that’s widely available and a majority of people are agreeable to getting inoculated and have access to it, workers—and especially companies—will have to do their part to ensure the safety of their fellow employees when they return to work.

For some people, even the fear of touching an elevator button or getting on a lift could be traumatizing, although some manufacturers have already starting thinking about air purification, face recognition, voice activation, mobile apps and more.

For employers, not paying enough attention to safety can affect sustainability if there are manpower issues and, conversely, sustainability issues can affect safety. And, to complete the circle, a lapse in either area could—and likely would—affect productivity.

Employers’ Rights

Before we dive in, one question that might come to mind is whether employers can require their employees to get vaccinated when it is available. I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with workplace legal expert Jon Hyman, and here is what he said: (Editor’s note: This guidance applies to U.S. companies only. Legal requirements may vary by country.)

Jon Hyman

Jon Hyman

“Yes, but with a big but,” Hyman said. “The big but would be if an employee requests a reasonable accommodation either for a religious observance or for a different underlying medical reason. An employer may have to grant that accommodation and exempt the employee from the vaccine requirement. … Another gray area [is] whether a health care organization, particularly for individuals that are patient-fronting, can require a vaccine, even in the face of a religious observance or an underlying medical issue. But absent those two exceptions, yeah, an employer can require the vaccine.”  (Possible bonus: Some researchers believe a potential COVID-19 vaccine could also help cure the common cold!)

Read the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on when to quarantine.

Hyman also addressed whether companies, again U.S.-based, can send employees home if they appear sick: “If you have the employee who presents in the workplace with a cough and a fever, I think, in that case, the company is within its rights to send the employee home until the employee is no longer symptomatic.”

Listen to the full podcast interview with Jon Hyman.

‘Tracking’ Device

One way to maintain productivity levels is through tracking incidents related to COVID-19 as they appear in real time. With this type of software, companies can ask their employees “to assess their levels of stress and their comfort,” said Marc Dillon, Sphera’s senior product manager, “and also their need for either different technologies or workspace adjustments to make their working-from-home situation as comfortable as it could be and as productive as it could be.”


Marc Dillon

As we discussed in a previous Spark article, there are a number of tips Chuck “Dr. Germ” Gerba recommends for staying safe from COVID-19 at home and in the office. Additionally, Gerba has tested the coating that American Airlines plans to use on its seats to help protect against the virus. His research shows the “electrostatic spraying solution” helps break down virus cells.

In an email, Gerba told me that he had done several studies on this product, and: “For bacteria it works at least 90 days. It may also work that long against viruses, but have not had time to test it for that long.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved the product as an emergency exemption. The EPA says the coating combats viruses for seven days.

Chuck _Gerba

Dr. Chuck Gerba

Of course, staying clear of COVID-19 or other viruses for that matter, takes thorough handwashing, social distancing, mask-wearing and proper surface cleaning, but hazards still abound.

“So at home, I went out and purchased some wipes,” said Sarah Henderson, Sphera’s customer success manager for government solutions. “I think a lot of us did—if you could find them in the store. And the ones I purchased, just out of curiosity, I flipped them over and read the back and the original precautions on there. And it said clearly that the wipes were to be used for the surface that you were going to clean, but you needed to wash your hands before you proceed to eat or smoke or anything like that, because a residual chemical will remain on your hands.”


Sarah Henderson

Learn the importance of reading Safety Data Sheets, which is especially important when purchasing wipes, hand sanitizers and other types of COVID-19-related products. Listen to the full podcast interview with Sarah Henderson.

Beyond wipes and disinfectants, employers, in particular, have to be mindful of the air their workers breathe.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) offers the following tips on how to do that, including:

  • Limiting building occupancy
  • Using directional airflow for office spaces
  • Increasing ventilation
  • Improving air filtration
  • Employing air cleaning devices

On that last point, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) is one way to clean air. A recent article that appeared in the journal Nature explained: “Germicidal ultraviolet light, typically at 254 nm [nanometers], is effective in this context” and low doses of “far UV light” (207 to 222 nm) can “kill airborne human coronaviruses carried by aerosols.”

William Bahnfleth

William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, who researches UVGI but was not part of that research project, told Spark in an email that because 254-nanometer UVC can cause skin and eye irritation, people must not be exposed to it. UVGI can be installed safely in central air conditioning systems or high on walls in occupied spaces to create a “disinfection zone” above the occupants.


Consumers can also buy portable UVGI devices, but, as Bahnfleth explained, they should be enclosed so there is no light leakage. Any direct exposure at those levels could be dangerous. “I am completely opposed to the use of disinfection wands with an exposed source that uses 254 nm or any other wavelength capable of causing eye and skin irritation,” he said.

“The doses required to inactivate SARS-CoV-2,” Bahnfleth added, “are similar to values reported for other coronaviruses that have been studied. Over the past few months, we have been testing another human coronavirus and its susceptibility is also in the same range, and will be doing comparison tests using SARS CoV-2 later this year.”

Shelly Miller, a professor or mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado, concurred, saying in an email that “UV is an excellent technology for reducing the risk of airborne infectious diseases.” She then pointed me to a blog she had written earlier this year with tips on proper ventilation, especially in the age of COVID-19.

“Once the virus escapes into the air inside a building, you have two options: bring in fresh air from outside or remove the virus from the air inside the building,” she wrote.


2020 State of Process Safety Management Operational Risk Management Survey Report
Read2020 PSM/ORM Survey Report
The 2020 report suggests one way to prevent the risks associated with increased MAHs is to turn toward technological solutions.


Here are a few takeaways on how to do that:

  1. The safest indoor spaces constantly replace stale air with outside air.
  2. A 10-by-10 room with three or four people in it should get at least six air changes in an hour, but more during a pandemic; research shows possibly as many as nine.
  3. Use a CO2 meter to see if enough fresh air is getting into a room. (A well-ventilated room will have 800 parts per million of CO2.)
  4. Air cleaners should have a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that removes 99.97% of all particle sizes.
  5. “If you walk into a building and it feels hot, stuffy and crowded, chances are that there is not enough ventilation. Turn around and leave.”

Source: Shelly Miller blog, Aug. 10, 2020

Returning to Work and Bullying

2020 has been a contentious year in many ways, and a stressful one at that. When people return to the office, or even as they work from home, there is the potential for workplace bullying to expand either in person or through cyber means. Either will obviously have a negative effect on productivity if a worker doesn’t feel safe. To learn more about workplace bullying, I recently caught up with Edward Stern, an expert on anti-bullying initiatives, who spent four decades developing regulatory policy at the U.S. Labor Department. He spent 27 of those years with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Listen to the full podcast interview with Edward Stern.

Spark: Obviously, we’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s been a lot of news related to the call to end racism once and for all. As companies are starting to reopen, are you concerned at all that there’s a bigger potential for workplace bullying as people return to the office after several months?


Edward Stern

Edward Stern: Yes, actually I am for a couple of reasons. One that occurred to me, and one that occurred to one of my colleagues, who alerted me to her concern recently, and she was a labor lawyer and also a union official for some time. She was concerned that the people coming back to the workplace will be anxious. It’s quite a change for people. They’re coming back to something new, and just that anxiety and edginess will prompt bullies to be more aggressive. I think that’s a possibility. I don’t reject her hypothesis on that.

My thought was that these bullies miss the opportunity to torment others. It’s something that makes them feel good. They don’t do it accidentally. It’s done because they need to abuse and degrade others because it makes them feel better about themselves. Consequently, they’ve missed it, and I think it’s quite possible that we will see a good surge of it when they come back. But even for these folks, it may take them a little while to hit their stride just because everybody will be a little off coming back and feeling a little strange.

Masks and Missouri

While wearing masks, cloth or otherwise, is clearly not ideal in a typical situation, scientists say wearing them, along with proper handwashing and social distancing, is one of the best ways to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in our current situation.

Here’s an example of why that is.

Earlier this year in Springfield, Missouri, a pair of hairstylists continued to work with clients, despite showing respiratory symptoms. Unbeknownst to them, they both had COVID-19. During an eight-day period, the stylists saw 139 clients, but none were known to have developed any COVID-19 symptoms (keeping in mind that not every client agreed to be tested) because the stylists and the customers both wore masks. On the other hand, four members of one of the stylist’s families developed COVID-19 symptoms. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote about the example in a whitepaper that was published this summer.

One of the study’s lead authors, Michael Hendrix, is an infectious disease doctor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Spark recently caught up with Hendrix to get his takeaways from the case study and to get his thoughts on what best practices companies can take to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spreading through their organizations. He did point out that it is possible that some of the clients in the study might have become asymptomatic from exposure, but none displayed any symptoms.

Dr. Michael Hendrix

Dr. Michael Hendrix

“It seems like masks are at least part of an effective strategy to prevent infections with COVID-19,” Hendrix said. “I don’t think that it means that face masks are the end all be all for how to keep you from getting sick, but it should be a part of everyone’s strategy and every community’s strategy” to flatten the curve.

The cases that Hendrix sees are often “pretty bad,” he said, because he sees the “worst of the worst.” When I spoke with him in July, he estimated that 10% to 15% of people who developed COVID-19 needed hospitalization, and of those people, 10% to 20% required intensive care.

To help prevent the spread of the virus, any person coming to the emergency room with symptoms such as fevers, etc., are screened and then taken to an isolated part of the hospital. Patients are asked to wear a mask, wash their hands frequently and maintain at least six feet of separation from other patients. Clinics in the hospital’s system have reduced the number of patients they are seeing, which has enabled them to get patients out of the waiting room quicker.

For businesses that are reopening, he said temperature checks and health questionnaires could be “great screening tools to try and catch these cases early before [workers] may cough in the workspace and potentially infect someone else.”

Studies have shown “that the virus could aerosolize and may be present in the air for several hours after a cough or a sneeze,” he said. “I think that the main point of masks in the general public are to reduce the distance that your cough or sneeze, or even the particles that you expel when you breathe, travel from your body. Rather than going four or six feet away, they’re [going] four to six inches away from your face. And you can imagine, in a tightly packed bus or on a train, or even walking down the street, reducing that spread from several feet down to several inches is a huge reduction in the amount of the virus that you can spread.”

He also explained that studies—although not definitive—have shown that people who “inhale less of the virus before they get ill have fewer symptoms and tend to be the ones that become asymptomatic.” That’s why masks are so important. In other words, wearing them reduces the “viral load” of exposure.

As Hendrix mentioned, handwashing is also one of the best tools at our disposal to keep the virus away.

Christine Schindler certainly agrees.

She is a biomedical engineer who is the CEO and co-founder of PathSpot, a company that produces devices that allow users to “fact-check” their handwashing efficacy. At least that’s how TechCrunch described it. The technology was developed in 2017 for the food industry to help restaurants make sure their workers weren’t inadvertently spreading foodborne illnesses through poor handwashing, but PathSpot sees an opportunity to help with the spread of COVID-19 as well. Users place their hands under the device to show them where they missed when they were washing, and the device keeps track of the data. (Editor’s note: Spark did not test or evaluate this device.)

In terms of any Big Brother-esque concerns, the company’s website states, “The Product also collects images of hands scanned by the product. This information is collected to provide you information, such as the most common areas that are missed by hand washers. The images do not identify fingerprints or other biometric information.”

Christine Schindler

Christine Schindler

When I asked Schindler what was more important, clean surfaces or clean hands, she responded: “If everyone had clean hands, it wouldn’t matter what we touch,” Schindler said. “It could be a chicken-and-egg situation, but I think cleaning our hands and doing so effectively at the right frequency analysis is the best way” to ensure people aren’t getting sick from cross-contaminants.

As an essential business, Schindler said PathSpot has remained open during COVID-19, but she said the situation has heightened awareness even more so around the importance of handwashing. Since the device tracks the data, Schindler was able to provide some “hot spots” for the areas that are often missed while people are washing their hands.

So what places do people miss the most?

Underneath the fingernails, around jewelry, the ridges around the fingers and the wrists.

“If your jewelry is contaminated and you’re touching that, you’re re-contaminating your hand,” she said.


The same holds true with hand sanitizers, she said, explaining that people miss the same areas, and you need to keep rubbing the sanitizer in for at least 20 seconds. “If you applied hand sanitizer and then immediately go about touching other things, it’s definitely not taken effect yet.”

Of course, being in the handwashing business has forced Schindler to sing the “Happy Birthday” song a lot, but she’s used to it. Some recommend singing it twice while handwashing to ensure you get every spot. And Schindler’s friends have caught on to singing it as well.

“I had a friend who she would always have her young daughter sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song to … and they would sing it to Christine because, she said, that it was a joke that it reminded her of why she should wash her hands for that long. And her daughter would always say, ‘Why is it always Christine’s birthday?’ ”

Me? Since I’m a baseball fan as I mentioned in my Safety article, perhaps I’ll will be singing the chorus to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” instead. And since my team, the White Sox, was eliminated from the playoffs weeks ago, I’ll have to wait ’til next year, as they say, for better results. Come to think of it, that might apply to our current COVID-19 situation, too.

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