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US Companies Fear Risk of Airborne Virus in the Office

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Some companies in the United States want to know how they can make their workplaces safer. Industry healthcare experts say companies are worried because of information from the world's top public health agency.

About two weeks ago, the World Health Organization called for more scientific study of the airborne transmission of the new coronavirus. It is the cause of the disease COVID-19. Experts say if the virus can stay in the air for long periods of time it raises safety questions for people in offices, stores, and other workplaces. The possibility that the virus can spread through the air in this way has not been included in U.S. government rules for returning to work.

Many companies have created rules based on information from the WHO that says drops of fluid with the virus could infect people after they landed on surfaces. Now, there are questions about whether the virus can survive in very small drops that stay in the air for hours.

Companies are wondering whether their policies on face covering and improving air flow are good enough. Some stores have put in glass barriers between employees and customers. Now experts say they must decide what to do if the virus can stay in the air around their employees.

Neal Mills is the chief medical officer at healthcare services group Aon. He began receiving questions recently about the WHO's decision to investigate airborne transmission. He said employers were slowing the return of workers back to their offices.

"They are doing due diligence around how are you going to reduce the transmission of the virus," if it is airborne, Mills said.

FILE - Workers wearing protective masks stand at an entrance to a Boeing production plant to hand out masks to other workers entering Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in Everett, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
FILE - Workers wearing protective masks stand at an entrance to a Boeing production plant to hand out masks to other workers entering Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in Everett, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The slowdown comes as some employers have already begun delaying plans to bring back office workers because of the rising number of coronavirus cases. Energy industry companies Halliburton in Texas and California-based Chevron are among them.

Employers are asking if public health guidelines asking that individuals remain about two meters apart and wear masks are enough.

They also wonder about air cooling systems that do not have filtration devices and the effectiveness of the glass barriers against an airborne virus, said David Zieg. Zieg is an expert at Mercer, a healthcare services company.

Experts are telling employers to go beyond their existing plans. Plans may include measuring people's body temperature, asking health questions and cleaning restrooms more often.

"The concept here is risk reduction. It's not 100 percent. You add in all the little things you can to reduce the risk," Zieg said.

Months after U.S. companies sent workers home, many are trying to understand the best way to bring them back. Many employers are worried about their legal responsibility and the cost of employee healthcare plans.

Some companies understood the possibility of airborne transmission early.

Automakers General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler improved ventilation in their factories before restarting production on May 18. The companies said they were worried about airborne transmission.

I'm Susan Shand.

The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

Words in This Story

airborne–adj. moving in or carried through the air

transmission–n. the process of sending something from one place to another or between people

due diligence–n.(legal) the care that a reasonable person takes to avoid harm to others or their property

filtration–n. the process of removing pollutants from the air or water

ventilation–n. a system that lets fresh air flow through a building

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