With Singapore’s COVID-19 situation finally stabilising, the Multi-Ministry Taskforce recently announced a slew of adjustments to the community Safe Management Measures that ease up on its restrictions, which came into effect last 26 April 2022.
Some of the most notable changes involves the group size, safe distancing restrictions, capacity limits in settings/events, mask-wearing, and workplace requirements.
To elaborate more on the latter two, wearing a mask is optional in certain circumstances (outdoors and indoor workplaces), and all employees may return to the office.
While some companies may stick with their current remote or hybrid working arrangement, others may be looking to bring everyone back to the workplace. If you work for one such company, should you still keep the mask on, or is it safe to take it off once in a while?
Mask-wearing in the office
As mentioned above, people can opt to go mask-free in outdoor settings but not indoors. Examples of indoor places where masks are a must include shopping malls, public transportation, hawker centres, office buildings, and coffee shops.
However, the adjustments also stated an exception for employees working indoors; specifically, they are free to remove their masks under two conditions: they are not physically interacting with others and not in a customer-facing area.
Thus, if those requirements are met, one can expect coworkers to take off their masks whenever possible. The question is: should you follow the crowd or keep your mask on?
A few things to consider before taking off your mask
As many may already be aware, the SARS-CoV-2 virus primarily spreads through the air, which meant that indoor locations such as offices had to be locked down to prevent workers from catching the disease. This led to the mass adoption of remote work in the early days of the pandemic.
Being outdoors mitigated this risk since the virus particles either dissipated in the open air or fell to the ground, unharming those who kept a safe distance.
Although the Singaporean government has deemed the COVID issue relatively better now, that does not mean the risk of catching the disease is no longer non-existent, even with all your coworkers being vaccinated.
How to gauge your safety in indoor spaces
If you want to gauge your safety inside the workplace, here are a few tips to reach an informed decision on whether you should mask up while working:
1. Ask about the ‘fresh air ratio’
Due to the risk posed by the coronavirus, the air flowing inside the office should ideally be 100% outdoor air or close to it, with as little to none of the old air being recirculated to lower the risk of the virus spreading.
Ventilation systems typically pull in fresh air from the outside and mix it with the old air before sending it back inside the building. Even when someone inside is infected, the massive influx of outside air will dilute whatever infectious materials they give off.
However, the drawback is the higher cost, as the incoming air needs to be cooled during hotter days (which means almost all the time in Singapore) and heated during monsoon seasons, which consumes more energy.
2. Ask office management to ensure the ventilation is using the proper filters
Filters catch all kinds of particulates in the air, including dust, mould, pollen, viruses and other pathogens, to prevent them from spreading further. Today, two main types of filters are used: MERV and HEPA filters.
The former stands for minimum efficiency reporting value and comes with ratings ranging from 1 to 16. The higher the number, the greater its ability to catch larger particles between 0.3 to 10 microns.
The latter is the gold standard for filters, which means high-efficiency air particulate. It can trap at the very least 99.97% of the particulates mentioned earlier.
3. Checking the ventilation rate
The ventilation rate is essentially the number of times air changes per hour. Hospitals typically have six to twelve changers per hour or more, while the average home observes maybe a half air change during the same period.
Nonetheless, the higher the number, the better. A ventilation rate of at least over four is generally preferred.
With the implementation of returning to office underway, many office workers may wonder if the added comfort of removing their masks while working is well worth the risk. You should be relatively safe if you can ascertain that your office’s ventilation checks all the requirements we have covered.
However, remember that this only applies to reducing the risk of transmission from a distance, hence the need for masks when near your peers.
This situation comes with various degrees of risk, and it is up to you to decide how much risk you are willing to take.
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