Keeping Your Home Safe During the Pandemic
By the SafeHome.org Research Team
It’s never fun to deal with an urgent home repair such as an internet outage, leaky roof or burst water pipe. Now, in these COVID-19 times, you also have to worry about workers potentially bringing the virus into your household.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to minimize the risks. For example, carefully vet the companies you work with, ventilate the house, practice social distancing, conduct touchless payment transactions and disinfect after the worker leaves.
What about non-urgent home repairs? If the virus spread in your community is low, these repairs could be worth the risk to you. However, it’s better to put them off until COVID-19 is even less of a threat.
Types of Home Repairs and Level of Risk
Most in-home repairs carry at least medium COVID-19 exposure risk for workers, explains the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
As for your household, the risk levels depend on factors such as whether repair personnel wear masks and practice social distancing. Either way, the risks go both ways—both you and the service personnel take a chance.
- Coronavirus particles get around fairly easily in tight, enclosed spaces such as a home.
- Many repair jobs take hours or even days, plenty of time for droplets from conversations, coughs or sneezes to build up and spread.
- Service technicians might have been in and out of various homes for the past two weeks, coming into contact with many people.
- Service technicians also worry about where you and other residents of the home have been. Some would prefer that you wear masks.
Common types of home repairs are listed below along with their level of risk. “Higher” risk sounds scary, but it means higher when compared with a lower-risk repair such as roofing. It does not necessarily mean there’s a high chance of coronavirus particles entering your home, especially if service personnel follow precautions.
Main considerations affecting level of risk
Protect yourself regardless of repair type. Contract only with businesses that take COVID-19 seriously and keep the following risk factors in mind.
- Business buy-in: Look for companies whose workers mask and social distance.
- The number of repair personnel involved: It’s safer to have one technician versus two, even if the job takes a bit longer.
- Method of payment: Go with contactless payment rather than signing workers’ touchscreens or using their pens, clipboards, etc.
- Length of repair: Longer repairs lead to more opportunities for conversations, coughs and sneezes (even just breathing can spread the coronavirus). Service technicians may need to use the bathroom more and could slip up with masking.
- Location of repair: From one perspective, isolated areas are safer than commonly trafficked spaces. However, small spaces with no ventilation mean more potential for virus particles to build up. That’s risky if a household member happens to visit the isolated area.
- Household residents should avoid enclosed, non-ventilated repair spaces for at least a few hours afterward. It helps to run a fan in the space.
- Research from several universities and national public health entities indicates that coronavirus particles in the air survive for up to 16 hours instead of just three hours. • 2
- The ventilation in the home: Open windows, air conditioning and running fans help disperse airborne particles.
- Location of household residents: Social distancing is important, so stay at least 6 feet away from repair personnel (even when greeting them and leading them to repair areas). If possible, go to another room while the work is being done.
- Household residents’ risk factors: Ideally, anyone who is immunocompromised or at high risk of COVID-19 complications would not interact with service personnel, even with social distancing. If this isn’t possible, let the service company know. Alternatives include leaving the front door unlocked and discussing the repair with the technician via phone.
- Whether you disinfect: Virus particles can “live” on surfaces for a few hours up to three days. It’s good practice to disinfect anything the repair technicians touch. For multiday jobs, disinfect when technicians leave each day (more frequently if you use the repair area during the job).• 3
How to Decide about a Home Repair
Is a home repair worth the risk of potential transmission? In many cases, yes. The repairs are urgent and need doing for safety reasons, work/school purposes, or because they seriously affect your comfort or quality of life.
As for non-urgent repairs, they could be worth the risk if COVID-19 numbers in your community are low. However, if anyone who lives in your home is immunocompromised or otherwise at higher risk of COVID-19 complications, it’s better to postpone until the pandemic subsides.
Keep your family safe with precautions such as contactless payment and social distancing.
Vet the service company: Review the company’s website to see how seriously it takes COVID-19. For example, the company should detail safety plans for both its employees and customers. OSHA recommends that in-home repair service companies train workers on social distancing, personal hygiene, cleaning practices, covering coughs and sneezes, and not touching their faces, among other things.• 1
If the company website doesn’t offer enough information, call or email to ask about protocols. The business should address issues such as masking, handwashing in between houses, and the workers bringing their own cleaning supplies and sanitizer. You may even want to find out if the company offers paid sick leave. If not, technicians have more reason to show up to work when sick.• 4
The questions are likely to go both ways; expect the company to ask about your household. Be honest answering.
- Suppose someone is sick but you say everyone is healthy. You risk technicians backing out of the job when they get there and realize someone’s coughing, sniffling, etc.
- Many companies will send technicians for urgent jobs even when someone in your household is sick (including suspected or actual COVID-19 cases). The company is likely to ask your family to follow precautions such as masking, social distancing and isolating the sick person during the visit.
- Some companies ask that everyone in the house wear a mask while the technician works.
- The company might ask if someone in the household has recently traveled out of state (or to certain hotspot areas), and when. If there’s any concern, the company might schedule non-urgent work for a few weeks out instead of sooner.
- Try not to schedule non-urgent work when someone is sick, even if it’s just with allergies.
Repair personnel are even more unlikely to use your bathroom during these COVID-19 times. Some companies have even installed wash stations in their repair vans.
Of course, bathrooms themselves may be the site of repair work, or a technician in your house may ask for the facilities. If you don’t want to say yes, that’s OK. Most service personnel don’t take it personally. They go to a nearby fast food restaurant or store (although that does increase transmission risk slightly).
If you say yes, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Are workers’ shoes a danger to spread COVID-19?
Not particularly, but there may be a slight risk of transmission. It never hurts to ask technicians to take their shoes off.• 6
Can workers’ sweat spread coronavirus?
Highly unlikely. As Maria Sundaram, who works in infectious disease at Emory University, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “The virus is replicating in little sacs in your lungs called alveoli. They [alveoli] look like an upside-down broccoli, and the ends are shaped like little bulbs. They are a nice ground for viruses to grow when you are sick. The liquid in sweat is coming from a completely different place. It’s not impossible to have transmission that way, but it’s pretty unlikely.” • 6
My plumber didn’t disinfect the surfaces he touched, both before and after the repair job. Is that a problem?
A bit, but you should disinfect afterward anyway, to ensure a thorough job. Workers who disinfect beforehand do it more for their protection (to “kill” any virus particles left from someone in your household).
How can I best protect service workers who come into my home, just in case someone in the household is asymptomatic?
First, honestly answer any questions from the service company. Companies may ask whether anyone in the household is sick and if anyone has traveled out of the area (and to where). Many businesses inquire twice—the first time when you book the appointment and the second time the morning of.
Before the worker arrives, disinfect the work area. After arrival, practice social distancing, and wear a mask. Go into another room (or even outside) while the work is underway. Keep the house well- ventilated and do touchless payment.
What should I do if the service company wants everyone in the household to wear masks?
Comply to the best of your ability. Technicians are taking a chance, too. Even if your family has had no outside contact, workers don’t know that for sure.
If someone in the household cannot wear a mask, let the company know in advance (instead of springing it on the technician).
Should technicians wear more face shields, respirators or PPE (personal protective equipment)?
No. As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration explains, “Most in-home services workers are unlikely to need PPE beyond what they use to protect themselves during routine job tasks.”• 1
COVID-19 and Keeping Your Home Safe During Service Calls
Many home repairs during the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be put off. Fortunately, it’s pretty safe to bring technicians into your home as long as you carefully vet companies, stay at least 6 feet away from personnel and follow other precautions. Take their needs into consideration, too. The both of you are taking risks and should help each other.
How to Protect Yourself & Others: Cloth Masks, Handwashing, Staying 6 Feet Apart and Other Tips
Household Checklist: General Household Planning Tips for COVID-19 from the CDC
Where New Cases Are Going Up, Leveling Off, Or Going Down: New Daily Cases vs. Two Weeks Ago
References and Footnotes
- In-Home Repair Services. (n.d.). Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/in-home-repair.html
- Ferguson, C. (2020, July 14). UTMB Experts Say COVID-19 Airborne Transmission Is Responsible for Rapid Spread; Virus Lasts More Than 12 hours in Air. Community Impact Newspaper. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://communityimpact.com/houston/bay-area/coronavirus/2020/07/14/utmb-experts-say-covid-19-airborne-transmission-is-responsible-for-rapid-spread-virus-lasts-more-than-12-hours-in-air/
- Yan, H., and Andrew, S. (Updated 2020, July 23). You Asked, We’re Answering: Your Top Coronavirus Questions. (n.d.). CNN. Retrieved July 23, 2020, fromhttps://www.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-questions-answers/
- Stanger, T. (n.d.). How to Handle a Home Service Call During the Coronavirus Pandemic. Consumer Reports. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.consumerreports.org/home-maintenance-repairs/how-to-handle-a-home-service-call-during-coronavirus-pandemic/
- Baskar, P. (2020, June 19). Coronavirus FAQs: Home Repair Guidelines, Toilet Plumes, Manicures and Self-Spraying. National Public Radio. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/06/19/880933513/coronavirus-faqs-home-repair-guidelines-toilet-plumes-manicures-and-self-sprayin
- Bentley, R. (2020, June 02). Safely Inviting in Repairmen During the Pandemic. The Atlanta Journal- Constitution. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.ajc.com/lifestyles/health/how-take-carewith-home-repair/FRAwyVzqJyx9DQgVHR30hO/