Staying safe from the coronavirus when you work in other people’s homes

For plumbers, repair people and cable service technicians, staying safe means asking questions. Call ahead. Don't work in a home where someone is sick. Collect payments remotely and use the customer's sink and soap.
March 19th, 2020
People who work in other people's homes, like plumbers, should be wary of sick people.
People who work in other people’s homes should be asking questions in advance and should avoid working in a home where someone is sick. Photo: Getty Images.

For workers who must go into other people’s homes, the time has come to dispense with typical introductions and routines.

“It’s completely reasonable, before they go in, to ask if anyone at the home is currently ill or under quarantine. If someone is under quarantine or sick in the home, then the worker should check with a supervisor to see if the work must be done or if it could be delayed,” said Dr. David Beckham, an infectious disease specialist who studies viruses in a lab he runs at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Beckham and researchers at his lab study viruses similar to coronaviruses called flaviviruses. They include common viruses like West Nile, Dengue, tick-borne encephalitis and Zika.

Across the world, the coronavirus pandemic is disrupting many workplaces. Some people are losing their jobs. Some employees can work from home. But others don’t have that luxury.

And the stakes go up when you have to do your work in someone else’s home.

Learn more:

For appliance repair people, plumbers, and cable, internet and phone technicians, the new coronavirus is causing worries about lost earnings if you stop working and the chances of getting infected if you keep working.

Beckham said it’s quite reasonable to change behavior based on those worries.

“A lot of our social norms are going to have to be broken in order to make sure everyone is safe,” said Beckham, who is an Associate Professor in the departments of Medicine, Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He sees patients at both UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and the Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Administration Medical Center in Aurora.

Among the recommendations Beckham has for workers:

  • Call ahead and ask if anyone in the home is sick or quarantined. If the answer is “yes,” do everything possible to postpone the job.
  • If a worker is sick, that person should stay home and not expose customers or co-workers to possible infections.
  • Take care of as much business as possible outside of the home.
  • Discuss the details of the job in advance over the phone or via email or text to minimize time in the house.
  • Take care of payments digitally if possible.

For people like postal workers and food and package delivery workers, do not enter a person’s home.

If you need to be in touch with a person, text or call them. Leave packages or deliveries of food or groceries outside the door.

“Have people come outside to pick up the deliveries,” Beckham said. “If you avoid entering the house, you’re significantly decreasing risk of exposure.”

For delivery people who share vehicles, be sure to wipe down any frequently touched surfaces, like steering wheels, gear shifts and arm rests.

For workers who must do their jobs inside a customer’s home, Beckham recommends talking in advance to the customer about a protocol so everyone can stay safe.

“It’s fine to say, ‘I need to make sure I’m being as safe as I can, and after I’m done I’m going to wash my hands,’” Beckham said.

Let the customer know that you are healthy. Let them know you plan to keep your distance — at least 6 feet apart.

If a customer has stated that no one is sick, but the worker arrives and finds that someone in the home is coughing or sneezing, it would be wise to leave and discuss doing the work later.

Do not shake hands. Do not worry about asking direct questions. All of us must get used to discussing our health status in order to keep our communities as safe as possible and to reduce the spread of the highly contagious coronanvirus.

While in homes, as much as possible, workers should avoid touching surfaces.

A new study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine has found that the coronavirus can live on some surfaces for several hours. The tests were done in labs with high dosages of virus and researchers are not certain how long the virus lives on surfaces under regular conditions in homes. A variety of factors contribute to the virus’ ability to survive outside the human body, including humidity, temperature and light.

Fortunately, Beckham said that coronaviruses are no longer contagious when they dry. So, it’s unlikely that workers would carry the virus into their own homes on a uniform or other item of clothing. Unless a person sneezes or coughs directly on your clothes, a worker probably doesn’t need to worry about washing a uniform or another item of clothing after each job.

“These viruses are what we call ‘enveloped viruses.’ They dry out once the once the envelope seal breaks,” Beckham said.

In order to be contagious, the virus must be moist.

“Clothing surfaces are not good for them. Once they dry out, they’re dead. And, once the organism dries out, its ability to be infectious decreases dramatically. On clothing, they dry out much faster,” Beckham said.

The new study related to surfaces found that the virus could last for hours on hard surfaces like plastics and stainless steel. But researchers have much more to learn.

“The virus tends to be most easily spread by respiratory secretions. There’s new data that shows those secretions can be on some surfaces or in the air if a person coughs for one to two hours,” he said.

“It’s hard to minimize your interactions with people in a house,” Beckham said.

So, it’s best for workers to spend as little time as possible inside.

“While you’re in the house, make sure you don’t touch your face or your mouth with your hands. Focus on the job. Get it done, then wash your hands with soap and water,” he said.

While worries about surfaces can be frightening, Beckham and other infectious disease specialists say it’s much more important for everyone to be careful about the moist droplets that emerge when a sick person sneezes or coughs. That’s why it’s so important to stay about 6 feet away from people and to practice good hand hygiene.

“The major mode of transmission is the respiratory droplets. Social distancing will help more than anything to reduce the spread of the virus,” Beckham said.

Regarding masks, he said it’s not necessary for healthy people to use them. Because there is a national shortage of masks, conserving masks for health care workers, sick people and care givers who are providing care for the sick, helps to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“If you’re not symptomatic, masks are not indicated,” Beckham said. “The downside of healthy people purchasing masks is that they are removing them from the system for medical workers who need to take care of patients.”

Beckham said it’s vital for all of us to keep each other safe and that includes protecting workers helping us in our homes.

“This person is doing very important work,’’ he said. “It’s important for us to keep them safe so they can help the person in the next home.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.