Make the Right Changes to Your Workplace to Get Your Employees Back to the Office Safely
Are your workplaces safe for people to return to work?
As of June 2020, we have learned a great deal, but are still faced with uncertainty.
We are still in a pandemic. The infection rate is high. There is no vaccine. There is no cure. Yet, we are preparing to open our workplaces back up.
In light of this reality, what can you do to make your office safer?
Certainly, we expect individuals to act responsibly when it comes to preventative measures such as wearing masks, washing regularly, and remaining socially distant. But when you look beyond the individual, when we look around the place we work, we need to proactively make those changes.
As businesses start to reopen, organizations are incorporating safety measures like providing hand sanitizer, touchless faucets and regular disinfection. Many businesses have incorporated new signs, including circles on the floor reminding us how far apart to stand and directives that elevator cars are limited to one or two individuals.
For those of use responsible for workplace operations and facilities management, this is just the beginning. You need to demonstrate what you have done to improve the indoor environment to your occupants.
Defending your space against this virus takes more effort than what meets the eye.
What additional elements of your building / office do you need to focus on?
Even though most organizations are implementing measures that reduce surface transmission, an often-overlooked aspect in making accommodations for returning to work during a pandemic is the building’s HVAC systems.
The HVAC systems in our buildings do in fact have a major influence on both the direct transmission of the pathogen as well as the body’s ability to defend itself against infection and should be a primary area of focus for back-to-business preparedness.
Although not classified as an airborne pathogen, the coronavirus can be transmitted through the air if it is particle-borne or as an aerosol. This method of transmission can be mitigated through your HVAC systems.
In addition to transmission, the human body’s ability to defend itself is diminished at lower levels of Relative Humidity. Below approximately 40% Relative Humidity, the body’s front-line defense systems become less effective in preventing coronavirus diseases – a major reason we get more colds in the winter months.
The good news is that both air quality and relative humidity are easily controlled with simple enhancements to your HVAC systems. But without the proper plan in place, there can be negative side effects, resulting in increased energy consumption and system inefficiencies.
How do I address my HVAC and air quality issues?
First, you need to assess the following:
- How can I maximize my indoor air quality while minimizing my increase in energy cost?
- What would my HVAC energy consumption be if I increased my outside air ventilation rates and enhanced my filtration efficiency based on published recommendations?
- Can my existing systems be retrofitted and, if so, what are the benefits, economics, next steps, and logistics to do so? How does this impact the filters I use?
- What is the most cost-effective way to maintain a year-round minimum relative humidity of 40% while my building is occupied?
- What level of visibility of Indoor Environmental Quality do my occupants require? What is the most cost-effective option to achieve that result? What is the social impact?
- What are my current ventilation, recirculation, and air change rates? What should they be to achieve a desirable result that considers the rest of my infrastructure, energy performance, and parallel measures I will be implementing? What are the economics of the recommendations?
- Can I achieve overall positive pressurization within my building? If so, to what specification? What are the economic impacts?
- What custom programming must I implement to ensure I maintain an indoor environment compliant with industry recommendations and perform and pre- or post-purging of my building as needed.
The Industry Guidelines
Next to add to your list of to-do’s: ensure compliance with Industry Guidelines.
Several government agencies and industry organizations have become the thought leaders in documenting the guidelines and practical approaches to preparing our workplaces for COVID-19. The government publications provide strategic guidance while the industry publications (e.g. AHSRAE) provide practical guidance. The publications are not contradictory to one another, but there are two conversations going on: 1) Social and logistical practices, and 2) Infrastructure.
CDC guidance and publications are extensive and heavily focused on transmission mitigation, education, and logistical practices. The CDC’s recommendations relating to infrastructure are brief but have broad implications and consequences, such as this one: “Further open minimum outdoor air dampers (as high as 100%) to reduce or eliminate recirculation.” The energy implications of this recommendation can be significant.
See the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to COVID-19 for more detailed information.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineering (ASHRAE) has chartered the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force and has issued several position papers on HVAC operations to address aerosol infection transmission.
Guidelines related to the configuration and maintenance of HVAC and plumbing systems for operating in pandemic conditions are extensive in breadth, ranging from the installation of different technologies within your infrastructure to techniques for keeping doors shut to minimize airflow within a building.
The guidelines are practical and could act as a checklist for owners and operators to assess what can, should, and will be done within their facilities. An excellent starting point is the ASHRAE COVID-19 Preparedness Resources
ASHRAE summarizes their recommendations in presentations on Building Readiness, in addition to individual summary presentations for Healthcare, Residential, Commercial, and Schools & Universities.
OSHA is very industry-specific and focused heavily on logistical practices. Recommendations are made regarding HVAC and infrastructure, but practical methods are not completely articulated. You can find information at the OHSA COVID-19 homepage or get direct guidance directly from OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 document.
Develop a Plan
When considering the intent of the government agency and industry recommendations, the technologies available, their consequences, your current infrastructure and the perception of workplace safety by occupants, it is apparent that developing a plan to get your buildings safe for occupancy can be overwhelming. You need to define your optimal roadmap to building readiness as it relates to your infrastructure. That roadmap must provide the maximum benefit at the lowest total cost of ownership.
Your plan should include:
- Humidifier installation, reconfiguration, or recommissioning
- Options for UVC lighting where applicable
- Enhancements to indoor air quality data and monitoring
- Identification of any potential filter upgrades along with potential energy penalties
- Central air handling unit testing, including air flows, filter differential pressure, supply fan power consumption, ventilation rates and air change rates
- Potential for positive pressurization of the building to the outside
- Custom programming to coordinate and control ventilation, filtration effectiveness, and purging
- Timeline and budget for phased reopening and ongoing maintenance
Getting Back to Business
Coordinating all of this work can be a real headache. Not to mention addressing all of your current shortcomings and long term needs to ensure your building is considered safe by your tenants and employees.
We can help.
At Enica Engineering, our COVID-19 Back to Business services are based on industry guidelines, including the strategic and practical guidance for COVID-19 transmission mitigation, education and logistical implications to ensure your compliance. Enica will balance these guidelines with liability and economic exposure to deliver you the most cost-effective approach to getting back to business.
At Enica, our expert team of engineers will analyze your current energy systems, pinpoint problem areas and generate solutions to provide a safe building environment while focusing on efficiency and cost control.
Let the experts at Enica develop a comprehensive COVID-19 Back to Business plan for you.
Download this one-pager to learn more about the technologies within our playbook.