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Returning Office Workers Could Face Additional Non-COVID Health Threats

As states slowly start to reopen economies and businesses begin to welcome employees back to work, many are still concerned – rightfully so – about contracting the coronavirus. Although safety precautions and social distancing protocols are being enforced, the quickly spreading virus has captivated the world impacting countries across the globe. As workers begin to return to the office, COVID-19 may not be the only illness to be concerned about.

Once filled office buildings quickly emptied out in cities and states across the U.S. back in March when strict shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders were enforced. The New York Times explains that these business buildings, which are usually constantly used, had been closed off and shut down with major health risks accumulating in unseen ways.

Increased Health Risks for Returning Workers

Dr. Andrew Whelton, an associate professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University, told the NY Times that the buildings many left due to the coronavirus are not designed to be left alone for months. Other researchers and public health authorities have also issued strong warnings about the plumbing systems within these vacant buildings as the water in the pipes, or even in the individual faucets and toilets, may have gone stagnant.

Employees, guests at hotels, gyms, and other types of buildings could be at risk as the bacteria within the plumbing systems may cause deadly health problems, with the largest concern being Legionella pneumophila, which could cause Legionnaires’ disease. After forming in a building’s plumbing, the Legionella bacteria can be dispersed through the air when toiled are flushed or when faucets are switched on, sending contaminated water droplets into the air.

Related Blog: The Key Elements to “Back-to-Work” Planning for Your Organization

What is Leionnaires’ Disease? 

According to Mayo Clinic, Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia, which is a lung infection usually caused by infection. Many catch this disease by inhaling the bacteria through water or soil. Similarly to COVID-19, older adults, smokers, and people with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to the disease, which tends to impact those with a weakened immune system. Legionnaires’ leads to death in about one in 10 cases, as per the CDC, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine estimates that over 52,000 Americans suffer from the disease each year.

The NY Times article goes on to explain that with just one outbreak many can become sick. For example, back in 2014, the City of Flint in Michigan changed their water source and failed to inform the public about water quality problems. Unfortunately, many people became sick and 12 of the deaths were linked back to Legionnaires’ disease. There was another outbreak at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair last year, where a hot tub exhibit sent Legionella through the air, which was inhaled by those passing by. 135 people contracted the disease and 4 people passed away, according to NY Times.

“Covid patients and survivors could be more vulnerable to this, so when they go back to work we might be concerned about another infection,” said Caitlin Proctor, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue.

Related Blog: What to do if an Employee Tests Positive for Coronavirus

What Should be Done to Prevent Legionnaires’ Disease 

Building facilities managers can work to reduce the risk of bacteria’s, including Legionella, in plumbing systems by pouring small amounts of disinfectant into a building’s water systems. This must be done regularly for those buildings that remain vacant, as when the water is left stagnant for too long the disinfectant disappears, as per NY Times. “Even just after a weekend, disinfectant can be gone in some buildings and the water is vulnerable to contamination,” Dr. Whelton said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many public health agencies and officials have been focused on responding to the spread of the virus without much thought going into the concerns of long-term water stagnation. Even if a small portion of buildings have this issue, with so many reopening at once, researchers fear there will be an increase in outbreaks that is higher than the norm.

One company that manages multiple commercial office buildings in New York explains that his staff is being extremely careful and cautious in their approach to reopening. Understanding that there could be harmful bacteria that could cause health risks within these buildings has prompted them to send engineers in to test the systems regularly. For businesses that do not own their office space, it’s recommended they reach out to the facilities manager or management company of the building to make sure the proper tests have been done ensuring the safety of everybody in the building.

Related Blog: IT Budgets Yo-Yo as Companies Close, Reopen, and Close Again

Communication is Key

Communicating candidly with your employees should also be of paramount importance. Those with compromised immune systems and those who are higher-risk at contracting COVID-19 should also be weary of other health risks upon returning to the office. Using a mass notification solution, businesses can send out office building updates and share the news and results on whether it’s safe to return, and what date employees can return.

In the case somebody contracts either the coronavirus or Legionnaires’ disease, companies can send out wellness checks to those workers and make sure they receive the help they need. Companies should also leverage the feedback from their employees during incidents such as this. Empower your workers to be open and honest about how they feel returning to work, and they can even submit tips, opinions, and concerns through text messages anonymously, if that makes them more comfortable.

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Tara Gibson
Tara Gibson

Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12, State & Local, Higher Ed, Corporate, and Healthcare, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!

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