Best Practices for COVID Safety in Buildings
It's hard to address a hazard that you can't see, much less one which our understanding of is continually changing. Currently, we know that COVID-19 is transmitted through droplets expelled by humans into the air and onto surfaces. As re-occupation of public buildings and workplaces is taking place all over the world, how can building owners and facility managers address safety in these shared spaces, particularly when we can't see the virus or easily identify those who are infected?
There are quite a few commonsense measures that individuals can take to mitigate spread, such as social distancing and frequent handwashing. Everywhere we look we’re reminded that we need to take personal responsibility for the health and safety of ourselves as well as others. However, our shared indoor environments don't always allow for “perfect” behavior regarding these directives due to a variety of factors (including human behavior, poor indoor air quality management, and space limitations). The good news is that many of the practices that reduce spread of infectious disease in buildings are already known and implemented as best practices in our industry, to a greater or lesser degree. Let’s take a look at some of the commonsense measures building managers can implement right now in our buildings to mitigate risk of infection.
Cleaning and Sanitization
We know that virus can live up to several days on hard surfaces (aka 'fomite transmission'), so paying attention to where people touch surfaces (both the frequency and number of individuals) is key. Door handles, break room counters, copy machines are touched many times throughout a day and require special attention. Just as relying on your fellow co-workers to maintain the breakroom coffee machine can be hit or miss, it’s best not to rely solely on the habits of occupants to ensure that surfaces are monitored and maintained for minimal spread. Custodial policies and schedules need to be thoughtfully updated and can include products approved by the U.S. CDC and EPA as effective against COVID transmission (PDF). The custodial team for each building will need to be expanded significantly and receive special training and appropriate equipment and PPE. Now, more than ever, our custodial staff are public health workers. It's important that all of us recognize this key fact.
Across the board, health experts agree that regular and proper handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent spreading viruses. In addition to keeping handwashing stations in restrooms and other areas well-stocked and sanitized, basic signage encouraging occupants to wash their hands with soap has been shown to be effective.
Distancing & Circulation
Because COVID-19 is spread through droplets that we expel when talking, coughing, and sneezing, maintaining a distance of 6 feet or more between individuals can slow or stop the spread of the virus. Enforcing social distancing among your building occupants and providing one-way circulation routes to minimize close proximity to others should be considered.
The connection between poor ventilation and disease transmission has been well documented and regulated in the building industry (PDF). Systems that bring in outside air instead of merely recirculating air have been shown to help clear airborne contaminants and reduce infection risk to occupants. These ventilation rates (or “air changes”) can also be adjusted to bring in a higher volume of outside air. The term “100% OA” signifies that no air is being recirculated at all, which is indicated for industrial uses and environments that generate a lot of heat, such as server rooms. Buildings with operable windows can open them to bring in fresh air for the same result.
Filtration & Air Treatment
While bringing fresh air into a space is ideal, facility managers should be aware of the benefits of air filtration systems. Research has shown that filtering recirculated air may be effective in reducing the transmission of airborne disease, especially when combined with other safety measures described above. Air filters can be rated on various scales, including HEPA or MERV, but the important thing to note is that filters rated with higher numbers block smaller-sized particles. For example, MERV-13 filters used in HVAC systems block most (but not all) of the particles that the COVID virus attaches to. Although most HVAC equipment installed in the past 20 years can accommodate these filters, it’s a good practice to check with your HVAC installer for what’s best for a particular system.
By itself, air cleaning or filtration is not enough to protect people from exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. When used along with other best practices recommended by CDC and others, filtration can be part of a plan to protect people indoors.
Although it’s impossible to know everything about COVID-19 transmission currently, we certainly know enough about viral safety practices to get you started towards protecting the health and well-being of your building occupants. What can we help you with today?