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The science of safer surfaces – package and item handling and Covid-19

Article by Megan Gee
gloves for safer surfaces undercovid 19

Covid-19 has changed so many different things, making problems that previously seemed minor and distant now important and imminent. One of the biggest of these is safety surrounding the sanitation of surfaces in warehouses and storage facilities.

Previously, only certain sectors selling specific items needed to be actively concerned about packages and products. Basic hygiene always mattered, but Covid-19 now requires us to go several steps beyond that. To help you with the best possible understanding OW Robotics is here to help with the Science of Safer Surfaces.

How much do scientists know?

Less than we would like. When the media talks about Covid-19 you often hear the phrase ‘novel coronavirus’. This means Covid-19 is a mutated form of existing type of viruses that only very recently emerged. Because of this, scientists have only recently been able to do tests on this particular type of virus. There is no vast body of work studying Covid-19 the way there is with other diseases like smallpox, seasonal flu, or the common cold.

This explains why Covid-19 is such a problem. A cocktail of newness and danger. Speaking on a popular podcast recently, American Physician Dr Aaron Carroll, Director of the Centre for Health Policy and Professionalism Research, said “We have not seen anything this infectious and this dangerous for which we have no treatment, no immunity, and no vaccine, in a hundred years”.

However, Covid-19 is a type of coronavirus, a family of viruses that scientists do know a great deal about. You may remember SARS back in 2002-2004, or the MERS outbreak in 2012. Both of those were viruses in the coronavirus family, and both have been studied in detail.

So while study of the Covid-19 coronavirus is ongoing, we can make some educated guesses. These are based on what scientists already know about other different types of coronavirus.

How does Covid-19 spread to surfaces?

Covid-19 reaches surfaces from infected people’s coughs. When any of us cough, we release tiny amounts of water from our breath into the air. In an infected person, these droplets are laced with the virus. These virus-containing droplets can last in the air for two to four hours.

When the droplets land on a surface, the moisture means the virus can stick there, and survive for some time.

If someone touches that surface, the virus is present on their skin. From there, it’s easy for the virus to enter the body if a person touches their face, or puts their hand near their mouth or nose as they breathe in.

This is why it’s important for as many of us to wear masks when possible. It’s less about stopping us from getting the virus, as much as it is stopping us from spreading it to others. You can have Covid-19 for a long while without showing any symptoms. When you do get symptoms, they may be very mild. Wearing a mask means the water droplets you breathe out are all caught and trapped before they can hit a surface.

What surfaces does Covid-19 last longest on?

The rule of thumb answer to this question is this – the harder the surface, the longer the virus will last.

Softer and more porous surfaces like fabrics, paper, and cardboard allow air and water to move through them all the time. This effectively acts like a constant washing cycle, and the virus is slowly flushed out. On surfaces like these, evidence suggests the virus can live for up to 24 hours at most.

Harder surfaces are different. Surrounding air and water don’t pass through, they just bounce off. On surfaces like plastic, glass, ceramics, and most metals, the virus tends to last longer, up to 72 hours.

The notable metal exception is copper and alloys containing copper, which has special antiseptic properties linked to its atomic structure. Like most viruses and bacteria, Covid-19 cannot live on a copper surface for long at all. As little as 4 hours.

How can we wash surfaces to stop Covid-19 spreading?

Covid-19 doesn’t require complicated bleaches or disinfectants to get rid of it. Water with a normal amount of soap or detergent will do just fine.

Soap’s chemical structure is ideal for destroying viruses and bacteria. Soap molecules are shaped like pins, with one rounded ‘head’ end that loves to bind to water, and one pointy tip that hates water and prefers to bond to fatty acids and oils.

You might see pictures on the news of the virus as a sphere covered in pointed prongs. Those prongs are how the virus enters other cells, but the surface of the sphere is made from fatty acids.

When soapy water encounters virus-riddled water, the pointed tips of the soap molecules piece the fatty acid layer of the virus. But so many pins get stuck in, and their rounded heads push against each other, that they push the virus apart and destroy it.

Cleaning with water laced with inexpensive soaps or detergents will work. If you are using the same cloths and sponges regularly, use boiling water to sterilise them thoroughly after use.

Are there other ways of killing Covid-19 on surfaces?

Studies into Covid-19 are limited on this subject, however some other coronaviruses have been looked into. SARS was found to stop being infectious after exposure to high temperatures for certain times.

  • 90 minutes at 56-66 degrees centigrade
  • 60 minutes at 67-74 degrees centigrade
  • 30 minutes at 75 degrees centigrade or above

The same study found that 60 minutes of exposure to harsh UV light would also severely limit SARS’s infectiousness.

From what have been studied so far, low temperatures aren’t effective, but the science is ongoing.

What if staff have to handle potentially contaminated goods that can’t be washed?

In this situation, the key thing to avoid is cross-contamination. The problem comes when you are touching a contaminated surface with your hands, and then you touch your face, or another surface, and so on. This is what gloves are for.

Since the virus doesn’t enter your body through the skin, gloves are not a protective layer against Covid-19. What gloves offer is a barrier that the virus can contaminate safely, because a glove can be removed and cleaned completely separately from the person wearing it. Your staff can touch surfaces with the knowledge that their hands are clean and virus free once the gloves come off.

Make sure you clean any gloves you plan to re-use thoroughly after use, and all should be fine.

Covid-19 is going to be an ongoing problem for some time, which is why it is important to look into all possible ways of limiting staff interaction with possible contaminated surfaces. This is one more reason why now is a great time to be considering robotic automation for your warehouse.

Learn more about the options available by booking a consultation or arranging a visit. Our new demonstration warehouse is fully operational, and able to accommodate all current social distancing needs. See first hand what robotics automation can really do for your warehouse.

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