Neal Langerman, PhD, a freelance chemist with Kolabtree, discovers significant omissions in UK government guidelines for businesses reopening premises after Covid-19 lockdown.
Opening and operating a business during this pandemic presents problems few have been trained to address. The goal of our businesses is to earn a profit while keeping our employees and customers safe. Local and Public Health England1 have issued guidance that covers almost every conceivable situation. All include sanitising and disinfecting the workplace and providing for frequent hand washing (sometimes called “hand hygiene”. Few of the guidance documents tell you how to select or use disinfecting chemicals and methods. Few discuss the regulatory framework you must abide by. This article attempts to fill-in that gap. As you read it, feel free to contact the author with questions.
While “sanitising” and “disinfecting” have different definitions, the nuanced differences are irrelevant to operating a business. You want to do what is necessary to keep your employees and the public safe in as efficient a manner as possible. This article will use the word (or its derivatives) “sanitising” to mean both sanitising and disinfecting. It also will mean “employees and customers” when referring to “employees”.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread as a bio-aerosol. Depending on the mechanism of generation – breathing, talking, cough, sneezing, etc. – the bio-aerosols settle out of the air column in less than 2 meters and 15 minutes. While exceptions to these values have been documents, they provide a good frame of reference for planning. The virus is quite fragile but does seem to persist on had (porous and non-porous) surfaces for minutes to hours. This provides an opportunity for hand to body transfer, and thus infection. The lipid coat is easy to disrupt making the virus easy to kill. So, how do you select a sanitising product and apply it? How often? How do you properly wash your hands? All valid questions that the business operator should not need to spend inordinate time answering.
Public Health England2 has published a guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces3. Many of the local protocols are based on these documents.
Normal cleaning with hot, soapy water reduces the level of virus on surfaces. A regular janitorial program of cleaning will reduce the risk of infection.
Further cleaning of high contact surfaces, door handles, switches, counter tops, etc. with Health & Safety Executive (HSE)4 – approved agents further reduces the risk of infection. If possible, eliminate high contact areas by using self-opening doors and imposing controls to stop contact with counter tops.
Outdoor surfaces, such as sidewalks do not need sanitising agents. Routine washing with soapy water is adequate. Railings do need sanitising.
Surfaces which are touched frequently ill need routine sanitising. These include:
- Light switches;
- Countertops Handles;
- Desks Phones;
- Faucets and sinks
- Gas pump handles;
- Touch-screens; and
- ATM machines
Routine cleaning should be performed daily or once per shift. High contact area sanitising should be done more frequently, based on the occupancy. A practical approach is to provide a sanitising spray (aerosol) in rest rooms and ask each person using the restroom to spray all surfaces touched as they leave the facility. Large public restrooms will require continual janitorial attention.
Hand washing is one of the most effective methods of reducing risk of infection. Washing with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds is highly effective. Employees should wash their hands at least every two hours while at work. If this is not possible, frequent use of an alcohol (or alcohol – peroxide) sanitiser should be done.
Selecting a sanitising product requires attention to its effectiveness and safety. There are many products being offered with neither well-established. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19)5 a good starting point from which you should be able to find equivalent products sold in the UK. Three classes of products are the most effective.
Products which contain bleach (sodium hypochlorite) will usually have the shortest contact time. They tend to be highly irritating to skin and proper handling, using gloves is essential. They must be kept away from products that contain acids.
Products containing alcohol (either ethyl or isopropyl alcohol) at greater than 65% is effective. Such products often contain a second agent, such as hydrogen peroxide which increases efficiency. Alcohol products are flammable and must be handled accordingly.
Hand-sanitisers are generally alcohol-based products. They may also contain a glycol to reduce skin irritation. There have been some fires reported associated with larger volumes than found in a personal sanitiser bottle.
Products containing quaternary amines (“quats”) are effective but require longer contact times. They tend to be less harmful to skin and usually are not flammable.
If you are using a cleaning service, review the sanitising agents they use with them. At a minimum, obtain a Safety Data Sheet (SDS), verify the chemical composition and review the safety information.
The method of cleaning surfaces will depend on the size of the surfaces. Most can be well- cleaned using a rag or brush. Aerosol sprays from consumer-sized cans work well. Using larger aerosol or spray devices should be left to commercial custodial services. They require special training and procedures to avoid inhalation over-exposure to the agent or creating an ignitable atmosphere with a resulting fire.
Employees who use cleaning and sanitising agents are included in the HSE Control of Substances Hazardous to Health6 (COSHH) regulations and this imposes some requirements on the employer.
- An SDS must be available for each product
- The product must be in its original container or a labeled day-use container
- All employees must be trained regarding the hazards of the product and how to protect themselves from those hazards. Training must be documented.
- If a fire hazard exists, then appropriate fire prevention procedures must be followed.
Remember, if an employee (not a customer) becomes ill with COVID-19, the illness is reportable under the HSE recordkeeping requirements7. You are responsible for recording and or reporting illness and injury in a timely manner as mandated by the HSE.
Sanitising your business should not impose an undue burden on the business. Develop a plan for re-opening and operating. Be flexible and review your plan at least weekly. Keep your employees and customers safe. It is good business.