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"Work bubbles" may be an effective way to fight Covid-19 — Study

Get in the bubble.

Workplaces have played a large role in the spread of Covid-19, according to health officials, as we’ve seen in the virus’ spread through the nation’s meatpackers.

“Essential businesses that were allowed to remain open have, in many cases, led to the ongoing spread of the pandemic,” University of Calgary researchers write in a recent analysis published in Canadian Medical Association Journal. “Factories with employees working in close proximity have been particularly affected, not only putting the health and safety of the workforce at risk, but also negatively affecting supply chains and downstream businesses.”

Occupational-related cases may account for close to 50 percent of all cases, the researchers say. They point to two examples: the Cargill meat plant in the Calgary zone, “the worst outbreak in Canada,” and the “Office Building X” outbreak in South Korea that required more than 1,200 workers to be isolated in the office tower after 44 percent of a call center’s employees caught the virus.

“These outbreaks represent major health concerns and disruption to business operations,” say the authors. “In each of these examples, lack of employee physical distancing and failure of early containment have been identified as important contributing factors.”

The researchers suggest one solution for safer workplaces may be so-called “work bubbles,” in which workers are split into groups and don’t interact at all with their colleagues outside their group. Therefore, if a person is positively diagnosed with the virus, the entire bubble can stay home to quarantine. The basis of the analysis of this strategy was its implementation at Bombardier Aviation, a Canadian company that employs 22,000 people at seven factories across four states in Canada and the U.S. The company reported its first case of Covid-19 in March at a manufacturing plant that employs 900 people, leading it to be temporarily closed.

“Because aircraft manufacturing is a long lead-time business and substantial investment is required to carry inventory, reducing manufacturing cycle time is critical,” the researchers wrote. “This is typically done by having many employees work dense shifts, which makes physical distancing challenging.”

So Bombardier transitioned all its office staff, including those in engineering, finance, management and programs, to working from home. The rest of its workforce, basically essential workers, shifted to work bubbles, based on the following rules:

  • “Functional work bubbles should have the lowest number of individuals who are required to accomplish the work.”
  • “Work bubbles should be designed such that business operations may continue even with the removal of any one bubble from the workforce.”
  • “Work bubbles should be strictly separated in time or space or both, effectively eliminating the risk of transmission between work bubbles. This can be accomplished by rotating workdays or by physical distancing, with meticulous decontamination of shared spaces after use by one work bubble.”
  • “Moving individuals between work bubbles should ideally be accomplished with a five-day gap between cluster exposures, to match the incubation time of the virus.”

Nancy Barber, COO of industrialization, footprint and central planning at Bombardier and a co-author of the study, tells Inverse this: "In order to keep their workplace safe, they had to respect the health guidelines set out by local health authorities."

Bombardier

Bombardier also staggered employees’ workplace entry and departure times so no two groups would overlap at the facility, and restricted access to common areas such as locker rooms and cafeterias. It also increased weekday shifts from eight to 10 hours. The company’s leaders also sent frequent reminders to employees through various communications She added that the company worked with local health authorities to ensure protocols are being followed.

“Luckily, we have not had any outbreaks at our sites,” Barber says. “Our manufacturing methodology has always used a shift-based approach, but the added bubbles within the shifts have been instrumental in controlling community spread at our manufacturing plants.”

Numerous employers have implemented similar models, according to Garick Hismatullin, founder and CEO of Kyla, which offers workplace Covid-19 testing and is not affiliated with the study. “The biggest problem is that most of the exposure is in the household and not at the workplace. All it takes is one person to show up to work while they are asymptomatic but contagious and we are off to the races.”

A new drinking fountainBombardier

Employers will need to be strict with potential exposures as well as building access for potential containment. “This is before we start talking about the financial feasibility of this approach in various industries and the simple human factor,” Hismatullin says, who added that “there is no perfect approach, but frequent testing is really the key.” The researchers cite daily symptom screenings as another strategy to reduce workplace outbreaks, with those experiencing symptoms urged to stay home.

Until a viable vaccine is available to a majority of the world’s population, mitigation measures such as work bubbles and frequent testing will be essential for businesses to operate. The researchers still urge people to work from home if they can, but also says that work bubbles could be effective for teams who wish to work in an office some of the time. For other types of businesses, work bubbles should be an obvious solution, Dr. Tyler Williamson of the University of Calgary, a co-author of the study, told Inverse.

“The most surprising part of our findings is the fact that not everyone has implemented these ideas,” he says. “Practically speaking, they are fairly straightforward to implement. The fact that Bombardier has successfully implemented them, with all of the complexity that comes with being a multinational, demonstrates that any company anywhere can apply these methods to do more to keep their employees safe and their business operating.”

NIMBLE IS A REGULAR SERIES FROM INVERSE. Every executive talks about it. NiMBLE is how to be about it. Strategy guides, C-Suite interviews, digestible reports on the latest scientific research for high-performing businesses, and essential stories about enterprising leaders, from the editorial staff of Inverse.

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