02/15/2016 03:19 EST | Updated 02/15/2017 05:12 EST

The Two-Metre Rule Can Help You Avoid The Flu At Work

Zachary Scott via Getty Images

People sick at work is a common problem. Back in 2013, a survey of individuals found that on average, some 60 to 90 per cent of people who are sick still show up at the office.

This statistic became even more troublesome when people are queried about whether they know they could be contagious. Almost half understand the risk and yet, for them, an appearance at work, despite lower productivity, is a necessity. In essence, presenteeism is more important than the potential to cause absenteeism.

While these statistics may seem alarming, there is some debate as to whether or not being sick at work does increase the chances for a small-scaled outbreak. After all, unless a person comes into contact with the bodily fluids of a sick person, the risk may seem remote at best. It's generally known as personal distancing of the two-metre rule. If you are beyond that distance, you should have no troubles.

But there has been a debate happening behind the scenes regarding that two-metre rule. Although the chances for catching the flu are significantly reduced, there has been no concrete evidence showing a person beyond that distance was completely safe.

Instead, the rule has been supported mainly through an analysis of transmission after the fact with supporting links to a person's activity. While the data has been for the most part solid, the question has never been completely answered.

Back in 2006, a review of the potential for influenza spread was conducted to find out if the virus could spread in the air. Instead of focusing on the bodily fluids, the focus was on invisible particles in the air, aerosols. The goal was to determine if the lethal avian influenza virus, H5N1, could possibly spread outside of the two metre distance.

Up until that point, no cases had been seen but there were still no concrete answers. The review concluded there could be a chance yet there was not enough information to completely rule out this possible path.

Now there may be some movement towards finding a resolution to the debate. Last week, a team of international researchers attempted to find influenza virus outside of that two metre distance. Their report suggests the rule may have to be re-examined and lead to an even greater push to keep sick people at home.

For the researchers, the office wasn't the choice of venue. Instead, they conducted their experiments in another area where flu spread is a significant concern: the hospital room. They sampled air in two-bed isolation rooms in a hospital in Hong Kong. The patients had been admitted with acute respiratory illness and were for the most part confined to their beds.

This made for the perfect testing scenario as collection equipment could be placed at fixed distances from the patient. The group chose two distances, 0.8 metres to mimic close contact and 3.2 metres to represent the supposed safe zone.

The collectors themselves were also specially designed so they could capture and separate particles of different size. This way, any droplets of bodily fluid would be separated from the smaller aerosols. The tests were done over the course of four hours, which would be long enough to cause infection in anyone nearby. It was the perfect method to determine whether aerosols could be detected and whether there was enough to possibly cause infection in someone outside the critical two-metre zone.

Once the samples were collected, they were analyzed for any traces of influenza virus. Because of the relative short lifespan of the virus in the environment, the researchers decided to look for the virus' genetic material. This way, they could not only determine influenza was present but also could possibly cause infection.

When the results came back, the data gave credence to the two-metre rule. While those droplets were indeed infectious, anything smaller than that came up for the most part negative. In only six per cent of the cases did they recover virus in large aerosols yet, this was in the close contact collector.

The authors suggested there may be some slight risk to those outside the two-metre zone, but for the most part, there was no reason to change the rules. Instead, higher caution within this zone is necessary to prevent exposure to the droplets.

In terms of the office, this study highlights the importance of keeping your distance from a sick individual. However, staying at least two metres away can be difficult particularly in cramped spaces. As such, to ensure everyone is safe, people who are sick should be encouraged to stay home.

If one person shows up sick, the risks to anyone who happens to be spending time within that three-metre danger zone for hours at a time suggests an office could end up being the hotbed of a mini-epidemic with consequences not only in health, but also productivity.

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