Office workers around the world have a trust issue. That's what a handful of studies have to say on the subject of newly remote workers returning to the office while COVID-19 simmers.
According to a recent survey of 3,400 workers in seven countries by public relations firm Edelman, half of the respondents do not deem their offices safe to return to. Only 14% say they trust their CEOs or senior managers to lead on return-to-the-office plans. Another survey, by global activist organization Lives Over Leases, indicates that more than 30% of full-time U.S. employees do not trust their building or landlord to abide by the health and safety guidance of government health organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, more offices may be looking at reopening in the near future. Yet many organizations remain conflicted over when and how to safely reopen — and for good reason.
In July, following global pressure by scientists to change its guidance on how the virus is transmitted, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged that COVID-19 can be spread not only via close contact but through airborne transmission, with poor ventilation playing a role. This new warning was soon followed by a similar stance by the CDC.
Now that more than 1.6 million people worldwide have died from COVID-19, discussions on commercial building hygiene and air filtration have moved from the purview of the maintenance room to the boardroom. Internal audit can help employers understand what is at stake: employee health and safety, productivity, damage to company culture or reputation, and lawsuit-related costs.
Focus on HVAC Exposure
ASHRAE, a global professional society for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning professionals, stated in April that because transmission of COVID-19 through the air is "sufficiently likely," indoor air exposure to the virus should be controlled. ASHRAE recommends changes to building operations, including the operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, to reduce airborne exposure.
David MacLean, a committee chair for ASHRAE's Houston chapter, says while there is no magic bullet that will eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19 in all buildings, there are proven building designs, technologies, and processes that can limit both an organization's risk and the health risks to employees. Analyzing and modifying an HVAC system is one of many strategies for creating a safer work environment.
"What we want to avoid is the situation where someone can show, through our lack of planning, preparation, or due diligence, that the building or office we work in may have significantly contributed to our being exposed to an infectious disease," says MacLean, founder and president of sustainable best practices consulting firm McMac Cx.
A dirty secret, MacLean says, is that many commercial buildings in the U.S. are built to meet only the most basic code requirements. They are not always maintained or monitored to see if they are operating at this minimum threshold. "Minimum codes are just that — the absolute minimum," MacLean points out.
Optimize Air Quality
MacLean recently contributed to COVID-19 and Indoor Air Quality Risk (PDF), an IIA Knowledge Brief on HVAC modification and liability. In it, he introduces key concepts related to HVAC operations and indoor air quality and analyzes newer abatement technologies. He also demonstrates how using cost-benefit analysis can help internal auditors weigh the capital and operating costs of a project against its social and environmental benefits. MacLean illustrates how an organization might quantify more intangible losses or gains, such as reputational loss, occupant re-entry confidence, and environmental cost-benefits.
MacLean points out that it is usually most cost-effective to optimize an existing system. In the Knowledge Brief, MacLean describes the three systems receiving the most attention with respect to COVID-19 mitigation: ventilation, filtration, and relative humidity control. MacLean echoes ASHRAE's guidelines, while also providing some caveats.
Ventilation Pulling in more outdoor air reduces the amount of air that gets recirculated indoors. However, increasing ventilation is limited by the capability of the outside air delivery system (motors, fans, ductwork, and cooling and heating systems). And in hot, humid climates, exceeding the system's design could cause humidity issues or health problems, MacLean explains. Equipment may need modifications to increase ventilation.
Filtration Air filters are designed to capture and remove particulate matter, which could include virus particles. Air filters are rated using the minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV), where the higher the rating, the larger the percentage of particulate matter captured by the filter on each pass.
ASHRAE recommends that buildings upgrade their air filters to a minimum rating of MERV 13, which can remove microbes and particles that range from 0.3 to 10.0 microns (µm). COVID-19 has been observed in aerosolized particles at sizes that range from 0.25 to 0.5 µm. Thus, the highest-rated MERV filters may be able to reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19.
Some caveats: Higher-rated MERV filters cost more, increase energy use, and need to be replaced more often. There also is no guarantee that the filter will capture all particles. Some systems may also need to be modified to fit larger filters and to handle the increased pressure drop.
Relative Humidity Control Relative humidity (RH) is the current amount of moisture in the air compared to the maximum amount of moisture the air can hold at a specific temperature. Although experts have diverging opinions on humidity control and COVID-19, both MacLean and ASHRAE recommend that buildings maintain an RH range of 40% to 60%, as dry air has been shown to increase the survival rate of some pathogens.
MacLean describes actions organizations can take to address indoor air quality risk, in increasing order of risk abatement and occupant re-entry confidence:
- Determine who is going to be financially responsible for any improvement in system capabilities. "Most lease agreements allow the tenant to upgrade HVAC equipment at their own cost to increase comfort and indoor air quality," he says. Organizations that go that route may also consider negotiating their lease to offset some of the costs.
- Evaluate the cost-benefit of doing anything, including deploying above-minimum-code designs, technologies, processes, or policies. Internal auditors should work with internal and external resources to evaluate upfront costs against social, environmental, and financial benefits.
- Make an indoor air quality (IAQ) management plan. This lays out expectations with respect to IAQ standards and what roles individuals play in implementing and enforcing the plan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has free templates to help organizations get started.
- Introduce enhanced cleaning policies and processes. While studies suggest that COVID-19 is most aggressive via airborne transmission, cleaning surfaces provides additional assurance and can minimize all types of infectious diseases. Hiring a janitorial contractor with a commercial pollution liability policy and an affirmative coverage grant endorsement for virus or biohazard cleaning services offers two advantages: Only qualified firms are able to purchase this type of policy, and it can minimize the risk for transmission and liability.
- Ensure the organization's HVAC system meets minimum air quality standards. The organization must determine if the right amount of outside air to occupant spaces is being maintained, humidity control is working, and adequate filtration is possible. Organizations should consider hiring an independent professional to evaluate their systems. This evaluation also can help organizations in negotiating lease commitments that the building owner should legally resolve.
- Evaluate the addition of technologies, processes, or policies with a known ability to minimize or abate virus growth and transmission. An example is ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. However, no technology, policy, or process will be 100% effective by itself in preventing COVID-19, SARS, MERS, tuberculosis, measles, or influenza from entering and being spread throughout a building or workspace.
- Provide the highest level of transparency possible. Organizations should show employees that the spaces they work in are being checked regularly and that the data is being provided to them without filters.
Trust Through Transparency
As with many dilemmas involving risk, one of the keys to earning employees' trust is transparency. MacLean is a strong proponent of transparency, working with community organizations in Houston to advocate for building code enforcement and more green space.
He also has launched a crowdsourced air-quality monitoring program called Air Champions Social Change Scientists. In it, community participants wear monitors that upload data on the presence of total volatile organic compounds and nitrogen dioxide in buildings and neighborhoods.
MacLean is also a fan of a new international certification for indoor air quality called RESET Air — an acronym for regenerative ecological, social, and economic targets. This certification uses sensors and continuous monitoring to maximize indoor air quality transparency. Although the RESET certification program requires that both sensors and data providers are RESET Air certified, MacLean said he has had clients introduce more transparency by adding more generic but high-quality sensors within a building and sharing the data with stakeholders.
"Occupant visibility into the quality of the indoor air is typically nonexistent, by design," MacLean explains. "If you can assure your employees that the spaces they are in are being checked regularly and that data is being provided to them without any other stakeholder filters, you have the most transparency possible and the highest level of occupant confidence."