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Physical Barriers

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Introduction

This document provides information regarding the use of physical barriers as a hazard control in the workplace. For general COVID-19 prevention practices, both employers and employees can refer to the CCOHS resource “Protect Yourself and Others”.

Consider the Risks

The risk of contracting COVID-19 increases in situations where people are working in closed spaces (with poor ventilation) and crowded places when with people from outside their immediate household. Risk is higher in settings where these factors overlap and/or involve activities such as close-range conversations, singing, shouting or heavy breathing (e.g., during exertion).

Each workplace is unique. It is important for employers to assess the risks of COVID-19 for their specific workplace and implement appropriate hazard controls using the hierarchy of controls (i.e., elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative policies, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and non-medical masks). Use multiple personal preventive practices at once (i.e., use a layered approach) to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

Use

  • A physical barrier is an example of an engineering control. It separates people and helps to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets.
  • Physical barriers may be used as a hazard control when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing and there is frequent contact with others (e.g., co-workers, customers).
  • Examples of when physical barriers may be used in the workplace include retail point of sale, grocery or dining checkout, ticket sales, public transit driver protection, reception desks, bank teller counters, pharmacy pick up or drop off, manufacturing production lines, and office areas to separate workstations.
  • Physical barriers should always be used in conjunction with other COVID-19 control measures (e.g., reduced occupancy, adequate ventilation, use of non-medical masks, etc.).

Materials

  • Physical barriers may include curtains, counter-mounted and freestanding plexiglass barriers, or floor-mounted freestanding prefabricated dividers. Walls are also a barrier and can be added made of wood, steel, or glass.
  • Barriers can be made from a variety of different materials. Materials such as plexiglass (acrylic) or polycarbonate plastics are frequently used. They are light and flexible materials that can be easily cleaned and disinfected.
  • Use material that blocks the transmission of air. Avoid materials such as plants, porous fabrics, paper, etc.
  • In many cases, transparent materials are preferred because they do not obstruct the view of the user on either side of the barrier and are necessary for situations such as driving. However, an opaque barrier may be preferred in some settings (e.g., office cubicles).
  • When selecting a material type for your physical barrier, consider the following properties:
    • Durability and impermeability
    • Scratch and impact resistance
    • Ease of cleaning and disinfecting
    • Local Fire Code and Building Code requirements (e.g., use of flame-retardant and non-combustible materials)
    • Workplace-specific hazards (e.g., radiation) that will determine the type of material required for the physical barrier

Dimensions

  • Determine if the barrier will be used by people who are sitting or standing.
  • The height of the barrier should consider the tallest user and should cover the breathing zones of both people on either side of the barrier.
  • The breathing zone can be thought of as a bubble with a radius of 30 cm (12 inches) extending out in every direction from the mouth and nose. It should be 30 cm above the tallest person’s nose and 30 cm below the shortest person’s nose.
  • Pass-throughs or openings for objects (e.g., documents, money, payment machines) should be as small as possible and not located in the breathing zone of either user.
  • The width of the barrier needs to be wide enough to accommodate a person’s normal movement.

Installation

  • Consult your facilities manager or building owner before installing barriers. The barriers may need to comply with applicable building and fire codes.
  • Ensure that physical barriers do not interfere with the ventilation or fire protection systems in the room.
  • Determine if any municipal-issued construction permits are required before installation.
  • Ensure that installation meets accessibility requirements.
  • Verify that the barrier is securely installed and cannot tip or fall.
  • Physical barriers should never prevent escape in an emergency or impede movement.
  • Verify that travel distance to exits and the exit path width is not restricted by physical barriers.
  • Barriers mounted in vehicles must not interfere with the driver’s ability to see or move freely. They should not hinder access to controls, or block emergency exit from the vehicle.

Cleaning and Disinfecting

  • Viruses can remain on objects for a few hours to days depending on the type of surface and environmental conditions.
  • Clean and disinfect both sides of the barrier frequently throughout the day.
  • To promote consistent disinfecting practices, create and provide a routine cleaning and disinfecting schedule.
  • The frequency of cleaning and disinfecting will depend on the amount of time the barriers are used. For example, barriers used in front of cashiers or bank tellers may become contaminated more quickly if many people use that workstation.
  • Use household or commercial disinfectants to destroy or inactivate the virus.   The disinfectant used should have a drug identification number (DIN), meaning that it has been approved for use in Canada.
  • Employees should be trained on the safe use of the cleaning and disinfecting products. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using, handling, or storing the product. Review the product’s label, and (if applicable) safety data sheet to determine what precautions to follow (e.g., use of personal protective equipment).
  • For additional information, refer to the CCOHS resource “Cleaning and Disinfecting”.

Communication

  • Encourage employees to report any concerns with the physical barriers to their supervisor or employer. Employees can also report concerns to their health and safety committee or representative.

Evaluate Controls

  • Regularly review the effectiveness of the physical barriers and make improvements as necessary.

It is important that mental health resources and support are provided to all workers, including access to an employee assistance program, if available.

For further information on COVID-19, refer to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Note that this guidance is just some of the adjustments organizations can make during a pandemic. Adapt this list by adding your own good practices and policies to meet your organization’s specific needs.

Disclaimer: As public and occupational health and safety information is changing rapidly, local public health authorities should be consulted for specific, regional guidance. This information is not intended to replace medical advice or legislated health and safety obligations. Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.

Document last updated March 19, 2021