Applying Exposure Science to a COVID-19 World to Guide Our Return to Work and School

Take it from the experts: An interview between Wellington CEO Joan Wells and client ISES President Paloma Beamer.

We all want to get back to the way things used to be, but is that possible? And if returns to in-person environments are realistic, what does this look like?

We wanted to get the answers straight from the experts. Enter ISES, the International Society of Exposure Science. We’re proud to partner with a client whose mission is to “better our world, its ecosystems, and inhabitants.”

Returning to school and work safely is top of mind for many people right now. Only 1 in 10 Americans think schools should open this fall without restrictions, according to a recent poll. Parents and teachers are concerned about student safety and the potential rapid spread of COVID-19, should an outbreak at their school happen.

Workplace environments are facing similar challenges. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes are concerned about exposure to COVID-19. If employees do have to work–whether they’re essential workers or leaving their work from home status–they should feel safe and protected by their employers.

Colliding the mission of ISES and our day-to-day work of crafting authentic, safe experiences in spite of a pandemic, Wellington CEO, Joan Wells, sat down for a video interview with ISES President, Paloma Beamer, to discuss how we should all be addressing COVID-19 as we continue to work to find normalcy in school and work environments.

Q&A

Joan: What does exposure science mean to you and how would you describe the discipline to those not in this field?
Paloma: We’re the people who study the relationship between the source of the exposure and how people are actually exposed. And so, because of that, we also study how to stop those exposures. So, like one of our members said, “Until there’s a vaccine, exposure science is the only thing protecting us and our families.

Joan: That is so interesting. What made you choose this field and career? What areas are you most interested in and passionate about?
Paloma: I came to this field as an engineer. My Ph.D. is in engineering, as well as my bachelor’s and my master’s. As an engineer, we’re very goal-oriented and very focused on solving problems. But I wasn’t sure if the problems we were designing interventions for, were addressing the most important issues for protecting people’s health from the environment. I didn’t have the language yet, but I knew I wanted to understand how contaminants went through the environment. More so, how that led to people coming into contact with them, how that differs across different communities and cultures, and by your occupation. One of our Emeritus faculty members at the University of Arizona says it best, “I can be in a room with a giant piece of chocolate cake, but it’s not gonna make me fat until I decide to eat that piece of chocolate cake.” And that is the difference between there being an environmental concentration or something in the environment and somebody actually being exposed, is through our own behaviors and actions and things that we do.

Joan: Tell me about the International Society of Exposure Science and why it was important for you to be involved and hold such a prominent leadership role.
Paloma: I was recruited to do my graduate studies at Stanford and worked with an amazing research group there that focused on farmworkers and exposure. A couple of members of this group were already involved with ISES and laid some of the initial groundwork for the Society and wrote some of those first definitions of exposure. When I attended my first ISES conference, I felt like I was finally around people who cared about the same things that I did! It just made sense to me to be a part of an organization like ISES.

Joan: It sounds like exposure science can really help us understand COVID-19. How would you describe the connection between exposure science and the pandemic?
Paloma: In the beginning of the pandemic, we took our time to get our role right because we know how hard it is to deliver health communication and we didn’t want to cloud the messaging that was coming out from government agencies. However, we are a group of scientists that are accustomed to looking at different scenarios, both at work and in the community, and thinking about how people are exposed and how those exposures can be reduced. We also understand that there may be risk associated with most scenarios, but that risk can be minimized by some sort of control or ideally, multiple controls working together.

Joan: What is the importance of wearing a mask and how does that relate specifically to exposure science?
Paloma: You can control things at the source, you can control the person or you control things along the path and the best way to control something is at the source. Right now, the source of coronavirus is infectious people. So, the mask basically puts a barrier over those infectious people. However, one big problem is that you are infectious before you have symptoms and we don’t even know we’re sick before we’re sick. This makes everything a bit confusing, which is why it is always important to where a mask when around others or in public

Joan: Wellington recently moved into a new office space and we are continuing to understand the procedures required for a proper return-to-work plan. What are the top things Wellington and other businesses can do to keep their employees safe?
Paloma: There is a hierarchy of controls that we use that is published on NIOSH’s website and other government websites and is actually written into federal code. The hierarchy details the different controls in which you should consider, the order of the controls and those that you should overlay. So, the first step is to eliminate the hazard. Obviously, we can’t get rid of Coronavirus, but we can eliminate how close people are to each other, how many people are in the space, and controlling who is within your 6 feet bubble. You also want to try to reduce the number of people you have in the workplace. You can ask questions like:

  • Do they really need to be here and be in person with each other to get the work done effectively?

  • If people are going to be in the space, what can you do to minimize the number of people who are within six feet of each other?

  • Can you do different work rotations?

  • Can you sit people in different places?

You will want to make sure your ventilation is as good as possible. If there are doors and windows that can be opened, try to keep them open. Have your HVAC system set to as much fresh outdoor air as possible. You also have administrative controls that you should be implementing in the workplace. That would be the use of surface disinfectants, hand hygiene, and guidelines for how you enter and leave the workspace. It’s important to make these habitual tasks for employees: use hand sanitizer, wipe down your work station when you arrive and leave, clean shared work areas like conference rooms. The more you post and repeat this throughout your office, employees are more likely to take part in this on a regular basis. You can also consider having people work staggered schedules to minimize the total number of people in the workplace at one time.

Joan: As a mom and scientist, what are some of the things that are fore-front on your mind as it relates to returning your children to school?
Paloma: I think we are all trying to understand the different alert levels at both a University and public school level. So an example of this could be the number of new cases in your state. A potential alert could be if there was a spike recently. Personally, I was in the mindset that maybe if there were 14 days of decreasing case counts in the state, I would take my child back to daycare. We got to 10 days before the number spiked, so I haven’t taken him back yet. I do think there are ways to get kids back to school in a safe way, we just have to get all of the other controls in place first.

Joan: Should schools be doing the same types of things that we’re asking businesses to do?
Paloma: I spoke with my son’s principal about this recently and we actually discussed practicing certain things at home. Encouraging kids to wear face masks at home and washing hands every hour are a couple of the things parents can do to prepare for their children’s return to the classroom. The principal also encouraged parents to try to minimize trips and other non-socially distanced activities.

Joan: Thank you for sitting down with me today, we’re so thrilled to have ISES as a partner!

Are you interested in learning more about ISES and how they contribute to the world around us? Visit their website or follow them on Facebook or Twitter for updates as they continue to navigate an ever-changing environment.

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