Updated: Aug 30, 2020
In March 2020 the world went into lockdown. In modern history it is difficult to identify any singular event that has had such a profound impact on society and human behaviour as the Coronavirus.
The virus has upended almost every aspect of our daily lives - how we meet, greet, travel, shop, socialise, exercise, and entertain ourselves. But arguably, the most routine and challenging element of the "new normal" is how we share a meal - something we typically do several times a day, every day - while mitigating the spread of the virus.
Certainly, meals with family or friends in the COVID environment may have seen some changes, and dining out has become an altogether peculiar experience, but as businesses gradually adapt to the new normal and organisations invite their employees back to the workplace, how have they addressed the challenge of the canteen, and what more can be done?
Why are Workplace Canteens such a battleground for COVID?
The video clip below illustrates the stark reality of the transmissibility of a contagion by touch in a canteen-type setting.
While we still have much to learn about the virus, there are certain facts we definitely know about transmission - in an infected person, the virus exits the body by hitching a ride in tiny water droplets that leave the body when someone sneezes or coughs, or by touch transfer from the mouth or nose.
Some studies have shown that the virus can survive in the air for up to 3 hours and we know the virus can survive on surfaces for up to 24 hours or more! We also know that a significant percentage of cases are asymptomatic, and that asymptomatic carriers can also spread the virus. This makes congregating together for breaks or meals problematic, especially in the workplace.
Did you know?
A sneeze can generate as much as 40,000 water droplets, and talking for 5 minutes can produce as many water droplets as a cough - which is 3,000!
Here are some more factors that make the workplace canteen so challenging:
Traffic - everyone's gotta eat, right?
Typically, there are a limited number of communal spaces that serve food in a workplace. So, you've got enclosed, shared spaces, where people from all over the site congregate to eat, meet and socialise. Also, numbers in the area are typically uncontrolled and (certainly pre-COVID) anyone could use the canteen at any time.
People tend to be creatures of habit - they take their breaks at around the same time every day, their colleagues do the same, they like to sit in the same place. These behaviours can lead to queueing, and densely packed or overcrowded canteens, even if canteen capacity is large. Growing business frequently run short on canteen space quickly as the workforce increases and existing surge capacity dwindles.
There are a lot of tactile surfaces in a canteen - door handles, vending machines, coffee machines, tables, chairs, trays, cutlery, crockery etc. Plenty of opportunity for a virus to linger on a surface only to be transferred onto someone's hand and in no time onto a face, or in the mouth, eye or nose (it happens!).
Consuming and Conversing
Obvious, I know, but food and drinks are consumed in canteens - some of these food items are stored in open areas like salad bars, hot food counters, and fridges. Also, a packed canteen can generate a lot of noise as people gather and chat - a lot of people together eating and talking loudly - that's a lot of open mouths and a lot of stray water droplets!
Sharing may not be caring
Canteens usually contain a lot of shared, washable or reusable items like cutlery, crockery, utensils, trays, and cookware. All it takes is one poorly washed item to spread a contagion!
Queueing and Loitering
Canteens typically have localised areas within where people congregate, chat or queue - the hot food counter, the (good) coffee machine, the water cooler. Social distancing can be challenging in these areas.
There has been a multi-agency approach in Ireland to returning to work protocols post-lockdown with the HSA, the HSE, the NSAI, the Department of Health and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation all contributing to an abundance of guidance.
We covered the most significant workplace regulations in a previous blog post but below are the ones that pertain to canteens.
organise workers into teams who consistently work and take breaks together. The teams should be as small as is reasonably practicable in the context of the work to be done
organise breaks in such a way as to facilitate maintenance of physical distancing during breaks
reorganise and rearrange working and break areas. For example, placing tables and chairs far enough apart in canteens
consider closing canteen facilities if public health measures including social distancing cannot be facilitated. If closing, provide information on delivery options
stagger canteen use and extend serving times
implement a queue management system with correct distance markings to avoid queues at food counters, tray return points and checkouts
So, what are organisations doing?
Phase 1 - Physical measures
increasing hand hygiene stations
mounting posters on doors and walls
signage on floors, tables and chairs
increased cleaning regimes
Moving or removing furniture
Discontinuation of communal food areas (e.g. salad bars)
individually wrapped food items (e.g. sandwiches, scones).
Disposable Cutlery, crockery and utensils
Remote food ordering
Payment by card (preferably contactless)
Phase 2 - Scheduling
Working from Home (where possible)
Cleaning between break periods
Restricted entry outside of staggered break times
All of these measures help to reduce numbers congregating in the canteen and at the same time, reduce or eliminate the opportunities a virus in the workplace has to spread. Hygiene, distance, cleaning, and staggering make the canteen a safe place - but they also make it a smaller place and many businesses are struggling with balancing implementation of measures while ensuring their staff, clients, contractors, and visitors have somewhere safe and convenient to take their break.
Leveraging Technology - Phase 3
Rigidly applying staggered breaks and restricting canteen access outside of certain hours is challenging to schedule, to enforce and to sustain. And constrained canteen capacity is leaving many businesses with little alternative than to direct their employees to take their breaks at their desks.
Luckily, many businesses have been finding creative solutions to increase the service offering on their sites and to free up both space and personnel in the process.
There are proven technologies in the "People Counting" space, typically deployed for large events like concerts or sporting events that are becoming increasingly popular for controlling canteen footfall.
People Counting is somewhat of a misnomer these days as the tech actually provides much more functionality than just counting. TRUCount is an Irish-developed, Occupancy Management System that is being deployed in canteen settings in high-tech multinational companies across Ireland. It's advanced functionality, and rapid deployment are attracting a lot of attention in multiple sectors.
After physical measures (furniture moving, removing, taping, queueing, signage etc.) have been implemented in the canteen, site management make a judgement on maximum occupancy of the room
Smart (IoT) sensors mounted over the entrances of the canteen count the number of people entering and leaving
The exact, real-time numbers inside the canteen are displayed on screens outside the entrances (as well as the max. occupancy) - COVID safety messaging is also displayed
Once the number inside reaches max. occupancy, the real-time messaging changes to inform those wishing to enter that capacity has been reached and to form an orderly (two meter distanced) queue
The system is connected to a smartphone app and web url whereby anyone on site can check the current, real time occupancy of the canteen before they even leave their desk.
The system can operate as a standalone so it would not need to connect to the on site IT infrastructure; quicker set up and no on site IT integration required.
There are numerous benefits from this leveraging this type of tech:
organisations can still implement their staggered breaks and free up any spare capacity in real time
the smart sensors do not use cameras and so there are no GDPR concerns
installation is unobtrusive and easy; it can be done in less than a day by any trained electrician
remote connectivity means that people can monitor canteen capacity from their smartphone or browser in real-time and take their breaks more flexibly
the system frees up site, security or canteen staff from "policing" the entrances to the canteen; personnel can be allocated to more value add activities.
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