The COVID dangers of your break room at work (and how to avoid them)

Most of us probably never thought that a workplace break room could be a risky place. But 2020 is the year of totally unfamiliar experiences — and break rooms are no exception.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “break rooms have been linked to the spread of Covid-19.” This isn’t much of a surprise, given that everyone is by now aware that being in close proximity with others, sharing confined airspace with others, and touching shared surfaces are all high risk for COVID-19 spread.

And, while a large portion of us haven’t seen a break room in months, many essential workers have had to navigate these risks over the past eight-plus months.

Break room protocols and risks

The challenge of navigating and controlling the break room spread of COVID is complicated, and different workplaces have handled it differently, making the variation in risk even wider.

Earlier this year, The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) released a set of guidelines for social distancing at work. Included in these guidelines is the suggestion to “stagger breaks and rearrange seating in common break areas to maintain physical distance between workers.” Some workplaces have followed these guidelines, while others undoubtedly have not taken the necessary precautions to avoid this break room transmission.

If your workplace has not implemented these practices, now would be a good time to make sure they’re enforced. There are a number of ways that workplaces can and have followed these guidelines, including scheduling breaks at different times, sanitizing break areas between use, and creating outdoor, socially distanced break areas so that employees can socialize and rest without the proximity or the increased risk of an enclosed space.

We know how important these measures are because of instances this year when relaxed, non-socially distanced break times caused an outbreak of COVID. In October, 15 staff members at Holyoke Medical Center tested positive for COVID-19 — and it is believed that the cluster originated from the employees eating together in a break room. After the outbreak, the hospital put restrictions on how many people can be in the break room at a time.

In Orange County, Florida, in July, health officials announced that there were coronavirus cases emerging from similar break room situations. They also pointed out that break rooms can be particularly risky given that people remove their masks to eat and drink and may keep them off for the duration of the break, for the sake of ease or maybe also because of “pandemic fatigue.” They urged community members and workers to keep break rooms clean, keep masks on as much as possible, and spend only short amounts of time in break areas.

This whole notion of “pandemic fatigue” is one of the biggest driving factors of break room transmission, and it’s an all too common phenomenon. People are deprived of socialization and human contact. This year has been stressful and lonely. So many of us just want to be with people, talk to people, and regain some sense of normalcy. And, while this is a natural and understandable desire, it’s also one that needs to be resisted.

UCSF doctor Ralph Gonzalez spoke of these issues in August and acknowledged the fact that many people let their guard down — particularly on breaks and in break rooms: “It’s such a hard habit to break because we need that time together, but we have to come up with creative ways that ensure that both people don’t have their mask off at the same time and that’s when the transmission happens.”

What we can do

One of the biggest steps to preventing break room transmission is to remind ourselves — and our coworkers — to not let our guards down. If possible, have open, friendly conversations with coworkers, managers, or employees about practicing safe, responsible social distancing. If people around the office are ignoring protocols, speak up — either directly to them or to a manager.

While sometimes uncomfortable, these enforcements and healthy peer pressure are necessary if we are to prevent the spread of COVID.

Beyond these social measures, continue to practice the things we all should be doing: wear a mask except when eating and drinking, stay at least six feet away from everyone, sanitize surfaces that you and others use, and don’t hang out in small, unventilated indoor spaces.