How office workers could be forced to sit after returning to work

A top scientist has suggested office workers should sit back-to-back in future to “significantly reduce” the likelihood of coronavirus transmission.

Professor Catherine Noakes, who is part of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), suggested people sitting back-to-back or side-to-side could better avoid the “plumes” coming out of their colleague’s mouths.

“If people are back-to-back or to the side then the risk is lower,” Prof Noakes, appearing before the Commons science and technology committee on Friday, told British MPs.

“We believe it is by about one metre to the side or the back that you are breathing what’s in the air of the room, rather than the plume that’s coming out of somebody’s mouth.”

As people return to work, office spaces might look very different amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Source: Getty Images

Despite the government’s partial lifting of lockdown restrictions last week, it is still encouraging people to work from home when they can.

It remains uncertain when people will be returning en masse to indoor workplaces, particularly as the spread of COVID-19 is much more likely indoors.

“There is a little bit of scientific evidence. It tends to come from very controlled studies where people either do a computer model or where they set up mannequins in a chamber and aerosolise particles as a surrogate. Most of those studies show that back-to-back is significantly lower risk,” Prof Noakes said when specifically asked about back-to-back working.

“The risk at that point would be the fine aerosol particles which remain in the air, which if the room is well ventilated is likely to pose a much smaller risk of infection.”

She said there is no way to eliminate the risk, but there are ways to “significantly reduce” it.

“I think the thing that would have to be considered there is if you set something up where people are back-to-back or at different angles to each other, whether they will actually remain in that position. You’ve got to take into account human behaviour.”

Prof Noakes, a professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, told the committee that COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets, mainly in indoor environments and particularly those that are poorly ventilated.

Even then, she said someone has to be exposed to a sufficient “dose” of the virus over a sustained period of time.

Prof Catherine Noakes suggests people in offices sit back-to-back to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Source: Parliamentlive.tv/Yahoo UK

She said transmission can happen in three main scenarios:

  • Person-to-person, within two metres, while face-to-face. This is viewed as the biggest risk

  • Droplets landing on a surface which is then touched by another person

  • Inhaling smaller particles which have remained in the air for longer periods of time

Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy previously spoke about how workplaces in Australia might look when everyone returns to the office.

He said there would need to be staggered start and finish times when people begin returning to offices so there’s no overcrowding on public transport and frequent cleaning will be paramount for shared spaces.

“We want staff to have a responsibility for hygiene, hand sanitiser everywhere, everybody sanitising their hands, people not shaking their hands, people not crowding into small rooms for meetings,” he said, adding video meeting should be conducted where necessary and travelling interstate for a meeting is a no.

He also doesn’t believe we will be shaking hands anytime soon.

− Yahoo UK

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