Why you should be cautious when you’re taking a break at work

There’s no respite from the fight against COVID-19 – not even in the workplace breakroom.

In fact, the place workers go to relax on the job can be a high-risk location for transmission of the coronavirus.

People remove masks while they eat and drink. They mill about the room, moving from the refrigerator to the microwave to the table. They sometimes let their guard down.

“The way people mingle in the breakroom increases the risk of transmission,” said Doug Dyer, an investigator with Public-Health Seattle & King County’s Safe Start for Taverns and Restaurants team.

Two examples help illustrate the challenges

Dyer recently investigated an outbreak at a large national retail chain in King County that had been taking appropriate steps to prevent transmission of the virus.

The managers checked each employee’s temperature when they arrived and screened them for COVID-19 symptoms. They offered gloves and masks to anyone who needed them. And they placed hand sanitizer at strategic locations throughout the building.

Nevertheless, an outbreak erupted that infected more than 20 people.

While the specific cause of the outbreak was not determined with total certainty, Public Health concluded that breakroom interactions observed during a field assessment may have contributed to virus spread in the workplace.

Recommendations for employers and employees

The Public Health investigation team suggested the following steps for the retail chain, which are recommended for any workplace:

  • Break locations: If space is available, encourage workers to take breaks outdoors, or allow workers to take breaks in additional rooms that are well-ventilated.
  • Capacity: Limit break room occupancy to no more than 50 percent.
  • Break times: Stagger break times to decrease groups of workers gathering.
  • Social distancing: Workers should maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others at all times, including during breaks. Space tables and chairs so employees are at least 6 feet apart when seated (more space is better).
  • Ventilation: To decrease airborne transmission of the virus, consider taking steps to improve ventilation in the workplace, in consultation with an HVAC professional.
  • Mask use: Remind workers to wear masks when they are not eating or drinking.
  • Signage: Place signs reminding employees to wear face coverings, maintain physical distancing, practice frequent handwashing, and monitor personal health.

Case study: A local supermarket that takes extra precautions

To find a great example of how this works, visit the 99 Ranch supermarket in Kent. The management has already implemented those steps, and more.

“We’ve reduced the number of tables in our break room from 15 to 7,” said Ming Yang, the store manager. “Only one employee at a time can sit at each table. And when they’re finished, they need to sanitize the table for the next person.”

While each worker gets an hour for lunch, during the pandemic they are restricted to spending no more than 30 minutes in the break room. They must spend the rest of the time outdoors or in their car.

“The employees understand this situation,” Yang  said. “Everyone knows this is necessary.”

Public Health also recommends that employers set up outdoor seating for their employees, if they have space available. “It’s all about risk reduction,” Dyer said. “In the case of COVID-19, that means minimizing the number of people in any given space, especially indoor spaces.”

Originally published December 16, 2020, and updated 12:35pm