For people who cannot work from home, social distancing at work is critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) strongly recommends workers socially distance, and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for social distancing.

Here are strategies for social distancing at work, and what to do if it becomes a controversial subject.

A restaurant with little social distancing at work prepares take-out meals.Share on Pinterest
Social distancing at work may prove difficult for workers with retail, healthcare, and service industry jobs.

People who work from home have significant control over their workplace. However, at an office or store, it is difficult to control other people.

A June 2020 poll found that just 48% of people wear masks at all times.

Meanwhile, according to a March 2020 survey, only about half of United States citizens view COVID-19 as a significant threat to the country’s health.

Workers may have colleagues who do not take the virus seriously, or feel offended when others wear masks.

Even when everyone at a workplace takes the virus seriously, practical and logistical concerns make social distancing tough. Some common concerns include:

  • customers and clients who do not social distance or wear masks
  • close workplace quarters that make social distancing impossible
  • jobs that require close contact, such as healthcare roles
  • touching surfaces others have touched
  • roles that demand physical contact, such as those in elderly care or childcare

Many states in the U.S. have relaxed the laws around business closures. This means many people are now returning to work.

But cases in the U.S. are on the rise, and the numbers are much higher than earlier in the pandemic, when businesses began encouraging workers to stay at home.

COVID-19 spreads easily between people, especially if they are in close contact and without masks. The risk is likely highest for those who remain in close contact for longer than 15 minutes, especially indoors.

While less common, the virus may also spread when droplets from a cough or sneeze land on a surface, then an uninfected person touches the surface before touching their mouth or nose.

In offices with many shared spaces, or where people are in close quarters, this method of spreading is more likely, since many people touch the same objects, such as copiers or refrigerators.

Social distancing greatly reduces the risk of catching the virus, or passing it to someone else. When everyone in an office maintains social distance, the chances of getting the virus drops, even if an infected person comes to work.

The following tips can help people stay safe at work:

1. Practice being assertive about social distancing

Good working relationships with colleagues can make work easier, and sometimes even fun.

However, many people are reluctant to be assertive with co-workers who get too close or do not wear a mask. A person can practice a few scripts at home. They should focus on self-protection and public safety, rather than judging a colleague.

A person can try these lines:

  • “Would you mind taking a few steps back? I’m high risk/trying to stay safe/do not want to spread the virus to my elderly parents.”
  • “I know it’s weird to be so distant, but I’m really anxious about the virus. Can you walk to the other side of the office?”
  • “Can we have this conversation over the phone or instant messenger?”
  • “I am going to step over here for our conversation.”
  • “Would you mind putting your mask on? Let’s keep everyone in the office safe. Thanks so much!”

An assertive person can prevent the spread of a deadly illness, and even save lives.

2. Wear a mask

A person who wears a mask can help reduce the risk of spreading the virus, even in close quarters. Masks are most effective when everyone wears them, so people should encourage their colleagues to wear them.

To get the most benefits from a mask, a person should take the following steps:

  • Ensuring the mask covers the nose and mouth.
  • Ensuring the mask fits snugly, so there are no gaps between the face and fabric.
  • Considering a cloth mask to cover a surgical mask, and prolong its life.
  • Avoid touching the mask with unwashed hands.
  • Leaving the mask on all day. Taking the mask on and off increases the risk of contamination.

3. Ask about implementing safe office policies

Workplace policies that require masks, social distancing, and other safety rules can make it easier to be assertive with colleagues.

A person may ask a supervisor or human resources department to implement these OSHA recommendations:

  • Workers should stay home if they are sick.
  • Sick workers should immediately isolate, and not remain in common areas.
  • Implement flexible work hours or working from home.
  • Install partitions to create more barriers.
  • Use tape or other guidance to mark off 6 feet, so people can easily social distance.

4. Know about legal rights

Workers have legal rights that may protect them during COVID-19. People with disabilities can request reasonable accommodations, including working from home. People who are high risk also should consider asking for these adjustments.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act entitles workers in most jobs to more paid family medical leave, so they should ask about their options to care for sick family members.

Depending on a person’s job and disability status, they may have other rights. They should consult with a lawyer if an employer puts workers in danger. An attorney can help people explore their rights, and options to enforce them.

Hiring a lawyer does not mean a person has to sue or otherwise escalate matters.

5. Ask about working an alternate schedule

If working from home is possible, a person should ask about this option. Even if they come in a few days a week, their days at home will reduce their overall risk of getting or spreading the virus.

When working from home is impossible, a person may ask about an alternative schedule. For example, they might work:

  • an early shift
  • a late evening shift
  • weekends
  • staggered shifts, so there are only a few people in the office at a time

Being at work can offer a much-needed mental health break from the monotony of quarantine. However, it can also be a source of contagion and anxiety.

Social distancing continues to be one of the most important things workers can do to remain safe.

Even those who are unafraid of the virus must be mindful of how it might affect others.

In every workplace, at least one worker, or one person who comes into contact with a worker, will be high risk. They should maintain a reasonable distance and help protect everyone.