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Do physical barriers matter in fighting COVID-19?

Why use physical barriers?

We’ve all seen the controversy surrounding people’s response to the novel coronavirus. Online forums explode daily with discussions of mask mandates and school protocols. When it comes to physical barriers, such as sneeze guards, some people see no need for any prevention method at all, while others see masks as sufficient and physical barriers as an extra, unnecessary measure.

To see these viewpoints in action, you need look only so far as the nearest Facebook comments thread.

KTM Solutions rendering of a framed, free-standing partition in an office

Virus Transmission

The value of various prevention methods becomes clearer when considering how this virus spreads. At this point, researchers believe SARS-CoV-2 spreads through both aerosols and larger respiratory droplets. People become infected through exposure to droplets containing the virus—by coming into contact with a contaminated surface (contact transmission) or an infectious person, directly (droplet transmission, usually within about 6 feet) or more indirectly (airborne transmission, with a greater distance possible).

Multi-faceted Response

Because multiple types of transmission are possible, it’s important to provide as much protection as we can. Cloth masks, while generally agreed to provide some level of protection, are themselves imperfect. At least one study of cloth mask efficacy before the coronavirus pandemic indicated that cloth masks provided less protection than medical masks.

That distinction might sound like a given, but as we look for ways to protect our communities, it’s important to remember that cloth masks can’t themselves remove all risk. The CDC and OSHA both support a multi-faceted response, suggesting the following:

  • PPE and unofficial PPE, such as non-medical-grade masks

  • Behavioral changes, such as social distancing and more frequent hand washing

  • Engineering controls, such as physical barriers (sneeze guards, plexiglass partitions)

When following these guidelines, it helps to note that implementing one prevention method doesn’t remove the importance of the others. Installing physical barriers can provide extra protection between masked individuals, as well as prevent droplet or contact transmission in case one or both of the individuals are unmasked.


Implementing Physical Barriers

So if you’re planning to incorporate COVID shields into your prevention strategies, what considerations do you need to keep in mind?


Physical barriers can come in any number of materials, but many people now are opting for transparent ones. Clear partitions not only allow spaces to remain well-lit but also let people interact with one another. This feature is vital in customer-service settings. But truth be told, the ability to have human connection (starting with visibility) seems increasingly important now.

Durability is another important feature in selecting partition materials. While glass is a possibility, it’s heavy and it breaks easily, posing a potential health hazard in childcare settings in particular. Materials such as acrylic or polycarbonate are more durable; on top of that, they can be bent (or “broken,” in industry terms) into a curved or cornered shape to fit a variety of spaces.


Cleanliness is perhaps the main point of physical barriers for disease prevention, so here are a few points to keep in mind, prompted by peer-reviewed Q&A discussions from the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, as well as Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (NCCEH).

  1. Physical barriers should block the “breathing zone,” an area that’s about a 12” radius around your mouth and nose. To be truly effective, a partition should account for different user heights, as well as whether one person might sit while the other stands. Any pass-through openings should be to the side so that neither person is exposed to potentially contaminated air.

  2. Since their purpose is to block potentially infected respiratory droplets, these barriers should be considered contaminated surfaces—and cleaned at least daily.

  3. Hard, stationary surfaces are preferable to plastic curtains or hanging partitions. They’re easier to clean, and a hanging partition can swing, wafting droplets through the air rather than just blocking them.

The discussion of different methods’ effectiveness is ongoing, but in the meantime we at KTM are doing what we can to help our community be as safe as it can be—from our own office protocols to the COVID-19 solutions we currently offer.


Let Us Help

Everyone, from employers to parents to educators, has a lot to think about right now, and no one has all the answers. If you’re interested in learning more about our physical-barrier designs and how they might fit into your safety measures, contact us and let our engineers work on a custom solution.



KTM is a team of professional engineers that partners with manufacturing companies to overcome challenges and deliver the custom design solution and the expertise you need for your project.

Our Products & Services

KTM utilizes a staff of registered mechanical engineers (PE) that are qualified in the design and analysis of advanced machines, fixtures, lifting systems, and mechanical structures. We design and analyze for sufficient strength, optimal mechanical performance, and safety in accordance with industry standards and governmental regulations.

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