Many won’t consider returning to the workplace until they know it’s safe to get there.
A lot of employees do not have the luxury of driving to work. According to the 2016 census, on any given day 488,012 Australians get the train to work, 323,201 catch the bus, about 70,000 get a train or ferry, and another 404,220 take multiple forms of transport (so car then bus, for example). So as we begin to consider returning to work as social distancing restrictions ease, the commute is going to be an area of concern for workers of all stripes.
At the time of writing, exactly when and how we come out of lockdown is yet to be determined, but as we move forward it is still worth considering how we can remain safe as we return to the office.
People will be looking to their workplaces for guidance, research shows. So over the coming months HR will probably get asked about the safety of public transport. What do we already know about the current risks? And how can you help employees plan their trips to work?
What the states are doing
State governments have stepped up cleaning processes on buses and trains to improve hygiene. However, there is still an onus on passengers to protect themselves.
The NSW government recently announced a $250 million stimulus package for cleaning services, including increasing cleaning staff for public transport. Queensland has also hired additional sanitation staff for its trains. All states have committed to increasing sanitation on stops, stations and on other hard surfaces such as handrails on public transport.
Public transport passengers are also being urged to use cashless options. The Northern Territory has removed fares for buses to reduce cash exchanges. In Tasmania, buses are free until the end of May. In Western Australia, bus passengers can pay with cash, however, payment must be made into a locked cash box and no change will be given.
All states have increased protections for drivers, some going so far as to remove the front seats of buses to keep a buffer between passengers and drivers.
Health authorities are urging passengers to continue social distancing on public transport, though that’s easier said than done. If possible, allowing staff to travel outside peak times would likely make trips safer and ease anxieties for those who cannot drive, ride or walk to work.
You could also encourage staff to carpool with each other or allow them to expense ridesharing to the organisation if it’s essential for them to be on site. Other workplaces are creating staggered return to work programs. So different segments of the workforce would have different days (or hours) that they work in the office and at home.
What the research says
Anxieties around travelling on public transport are likely to persist for a while yet. These concerns are not unfounded. A 2011 UK study found bus and tram users were up to six times more likely to catch an acute respiratory infection. However, occasional transport passengers were at higher risk than habitual users, as the latter are more likely to develop antibodies from repeated exposure, the researchers found.
Unfortunately, developing immunity is not necessarily a feasible idea in the current climate. From what we understand of COVID-19, patients can develop a short period of immunity directly following recovery from the disease, but the data around reinfection is too limited to understand how safe recovered patients are from reinfection.
One lesson we can take away from the 2011 study is how commuters at busier stations were more likely to contract an infection. Virus hot spots, like Sydney’s Central station or Melbourne’s Flinders Street, are riskier due to the increased number of people and shared surfaces. If employees can alter their travel route to avoid busy stations then this could decrease their chance of getting sick.
Despite its publication in 2011, the authors’ conclusions echo a lot of what we’re hearing from experts today. The researchers’ urge passengers to exercise good hygiene when travelling and refrain from using public transport while unwell.
What you can do
As we return to our routines, the best advice is to continue following the hygiene guidelines recommended by medical experts. When catching public transport, commuters can take some steps to protect their health:
- Keep a distance between yourself and others when possible
- There are differing opinions on wearing masks in public (experts can even disagree on the same research) but it can make some staff feel safer, so it should not be discouraged
- Use contactless payment options, such as Opal, Myki or payWave
- Avoid touching hard surfaces
- When pressing buttons try to use your elbow, or try to create a barrier with your sleeve or a tissue
- Travel with hand sanitizer and tissues, and use them often.
- Practice coughing and sneezing etiquette (that’s coughing into your elbow and away from others)
- Avoid touching your face
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say public transport is one hundred per cent safe, but for many people, it is the only option. What HR can do is listen to the concerns of staff members and accommodate them where possible.
As well as the physical risks it’s important HR consider the psychological impacts the pandemic is having on the work force. AHRI’s latest webinar, The Psychological Reality of the COVID-19 Working World, addresses this very issue.