As more personnel return to the physical workspace, the Office of Research Services, Division of Occupational Health and Safety (DOHS) is receiving numerous requests for information about the use of barriers (e.g., Plexiglass and Lexan) to protect staff from transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Barriers are recommended by CDC and OSHA specifically for work situations where staff have the potential to come in contact with people known, or suspected, to be infected with COVID, or where there is high turnover and infection status of personnel is unknown.
The CDC, OSHA and NIH do NOT recommend barriers as a replacement for physical distancing or personal protective equipment use (face coverings/face shields). Barriers should only be used in combination with physical distancing, face coverings and routine disinfection of high-contact surfaces.
When evaluating barriers remember their limitations. They do not allow for increased population in laboratories and offices. The current NIH Safety Guidance for the Return to the Physical Workspace (https://go.usa.gov/x7YfN) requires workspaces have no more than 1 person per 200-250 square feet. Additionally, they may have negative impact on airflow within a space. This is important to understand when in a laboratory where Biological Safety Cabinets (BSCs), Chemical Fume Hoods (CFHs), and other local exhaust ventilation are important for controlling biological and chemical hazards. Barriers may also provide a false sense of security, leading people to believe it is safe to remain in close proximity to others for extended times.
Barriers are appropriate in some circumstances where they may provide added benefit. For example, barriers may add droplet protection in locations with frequent, short duration contact with personnel from outside your office or laboratory. When paired with physical distancing and proper face covering, reception areas may benefit from properly placed barriers. They can also be a good reminder of distancing requirements.
If you decide to use barriers, install them in a manner that reinforces physical distancing requirements:
- Design the barrier dimensions to exceed the breathing zone of partition users.
- Incorporate slots if items need to be passed between employees to minimize employees stepping around the barrier to conduct business.
- Always install with safety in mind, taking care not to hinder the user's escape in an emergency situation.
- Partitions should be secured to a surface to avoid falling/tipping.
Your safety office is available to help assess your proposed SARS-CoV-2 controls, including placement of physical barriers intended to provide droplet protection. For Maryland and Montana NIH facilities, please contact your assigned IC Safety and Health Specialist at https://go.usa.gov/x7YxK or call 301-496-2960. For NIEHS facilities in North Carolina, please call 984-287-3400.
Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication to the NIH mission in these challenging times. Your attention to using smart and effective controls will help us be successful in meeting this challenge. Should you have any concerns please share them with DOHS on the NIH COVID-19 Reporting Tool at https://go.usa.gov/x7YxR. This is an anonymous reporting tool and your concerns will be directed to ICO senior management to be addressed.