Updated: Jun 10, 2020
Published by: John Rimer
While it is too early to fully measure the global impact of the coronavirus, it is safe to assume that how facilities conduct day-to-day business will change. There will be a new norm. People will view the person coughing next to them in the elevator differently. The sniffling and sneezing cubicle neighbor — is it allergies or the flu? While facility departments cannot prevent sick people from coming into their buildings, they can implement measures that mitigate risk and bring peace of mind so that workers and patrons can breathe more easily.
These measures make sense even if the COVID-19 pandemic was a once a century event. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, since 2010, from 9 million to 45 million people in the United States have contracted the flu each year, with death tolls estimated to be as high as 61,000. Depending upon the severity of the flu season, the economic impact to the United States could exceed $87 billion with 65 percent of those costs the result of lost productivity and revenue — that’s just shy of half a percent of the U.S. gross domestic product; to translate, the flu would wipe out Amazon’s 2019 fourth quarter revenue. Given those numbers, the common flu alone provides significant fiscal justification to improve and invest in facility management practices and operations in six areas.
1. Cleaning practices
Knowing that pathogens can remain viable on surfaces for days, a practical first line of defense is comprehensive cleaning practices employed at the facility. CDC recommends routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, and faucets with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered disinfectants that are appropriate for the surface; facility managers may want to potentially increase cleaning frequency during the flu season, which runs from October through May. Common spaces, such as restrooms, break rooms, conference rooms, etc., should take high priority.
Building occupants should be encouraged to clean their personal workspace with approved disinfectants, as provided by facility or environmental, health, and safety departments.
Note that cleaners merely remove dirt and grime, but do not necessarily kill bacteria or viruses; EPA provides a list of registered disinfecting products, contact time, and targeted pathogen.
2. Education and awareness
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically increased awareness of the need for hand washing, covering coughs, and isolating oneself when symptoms are present. Educational signage should be displayed, with occasional email reminders, to keep this awareness at the forefront of everyone’s mind — especially during the flu season.
Facilities can take extra steps by expanding the location of sanitation stations, providing appropriate masks, and ensuring occupants have access to approved disinfectant wipes.
Building systems and operations present many opportunities to reduce the risk of infection. Bacteria, mold spores, and viruses, such as COVID-19, can remain airborne for hours. Thus, beyond surface cleaning, facilities should explore these other options for reducing the level of infection-causing agents in the air.
3. Positive building pressure
The first step in delivering healthy indoor air quality is to properly balance the building so that it maintains positive pressure versus outside. This will mitigate moisture and air infiltration and prevent related contaminants from entering via uncontrolled pathways.
To achieve that goal, it’s important to ensure that the facility is airtight. Buildings should be properly commissioned and balanced by qualified providers after any construction that affects the exterior or changes the air or water (HVAC) distribution. Additionally, it is recommended that recommissioning occur every three to five years with some TAB (test/adjust/balance) measurements sampled. This step will ensure the facility and its systems continue to efficiently operate as designed.
Building pressure should be monitored and trended via the building automation system to confirm it remains within limits.