As we begin to recover after extended business closures due to COVID-19, building owners and managers face the daunting task of reopening buildings and inviting occupants back under completely new circumstances.
Providing for the safety and health of occupants in the midst of a global pandemic introduces new and unanticipated challenges beyond the typical safety and security measures. Here are three key aspects that should be addressed in a building re-occupancy plan to promote the health and safety of building occupants.
Prior to re-occupancy, it’s important to walk through the building to identify basic building hygiene items that may have been left unmonitored due to unexpected vacancy and inspect for water leaks that may have occurred, damaging building materials and potentially triggering mould growth. These leaks and related damage should be repaired before reopening. If mould growth is detected, consider employing the services of a licensed remediation contractor to mitigate the issues followed by clearance testing to properly document safe building conditions post remediation.
Thermostats, which may have been adjusted to reduce energy use or expense, should be reset for comfort a few days before reopening. Assess any deficiencies in the system’s ability to heat or cool the space.
Unused plumbing may leach heavy metals into water after extended periods of disuse.
Plumbing systems and water heaters may contain stagnant water, which can breed bacteria and trigger outbreaks of legionella or other waterborne pathogens. Consider water testing to confirm water is safe for human use and consumption.
Because person-to-person contact is a primary risk for contracting COVID-19, cleaning is more critical than ever to stifling the spread of disease. There are several aspects to consider when it comes to custodial services, including people, prevalence and products.
· People – For providers of janitorial services, additional training may be required to ensure proper usage of new cleaning agents and/or to emphasise proper sanitisation techniques to standards like those outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or and/or ASTM International. For building owners that outsource janitorial services, it’s important to sit down with those contractors and ask some questions: What operational changes have they put in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak? Have their employees undergone additional training? What new measures are in place to protect their staff and customers?
Likewise, if employees will be responsible for sanitising common areas after use, it’s important to communicate the correct and safe usage of cleaning agents.
Given the paramount importance of cleaning and sanitation, it’s important to work closely with custodial resources to ensure procedures are followed.
· Prevalence – How often will cleaning take place? For the building as a whole, will janitorial services be provided more frequently? For common areas or equipment, should cleaning take place after each use? While surface testing for the virus is not practical for routine evaluations in most buildings, consider other programmatic evaluation methods such as the guiding principles of the APPA audio used for LEED Certification and/or bioluminescent testing to assist in verification of cleaning efficacy. Include these details in the response plan in case adjustments are needed.
· Products – Which cleaning or sanitation products will be used and will they be provided by the building owner or the tenant? If hand sanitiser is made available throughout the building, be sure it is located a safe distance away from electrical outlets, as it is a flammable substance. Download product safety data sheets on any new cleaning products you plan to use to understand the exposure risk to janitorial staff or employees. Prepare to provide personal protective equipment for those who will be using the products. The EPA has a robust list of cleaners that are effective against COVID-19 on surfaces.
Indoor air quality/ HVAC
Given the potential aerosolisation of COVID-19 and the highly contagious nature of the disease, building occupants will be more concerned with indoor air quality and HVAC system operations and maintenance than ever before.
Changes to ventilation should be considered alongside an assessment of the potential ramifications of any changes made. For example, increasing outside air ventilation may be a good way to increase air exchange, but recognise up-front the possible trade-offs such as increased costs and greater carbon footprint.
Increased filtration may be a good idea, but it’s important to plan within the context of your HVAC systems.
Temperature and humidity may affect how stable and transmissible viruses are. By maintaining 40-60% relative humidity in a building when possible, you may be able to reduce transmission of the virus.i It’s important to monitor and react to new findings related to the transmission of COVID-19.
For high-risk buildings, there are technologies such as ultraviolet lighting solutions that can offer effective large-scale sterilisation. While many companies tout air cleaning technologies to eradicate viruses, carefully assess them prior to purchase. It’s a good idea to ask for third party scientific studies for verification of products’ effectiveness.
Other critical success factors
It’s important to evaluate your plan according to the typical usage, occupancy and activities associated with each individual building. As an example, distinct measures may be needed in a manufacturing plant where workers have no choice but to work at a close distance to one another and regularly use common equipment. A re-occupancy plan for this type of facility will be very different than one for a retail space. However, a few fundamentals remain the same.
Start by making a list of infection control measures, and then outline the potential impacts of those measures. For example, by limiting traffic flow in a building, you may inadvertently cause a fire hazard, if points of egress are locked. Physically walk through your access control plan, carefully considering all the pros and cons for each action item. Evaluate the plan against possible scenarios to help you anticipate unintended consequences. Plan how you will communicate the new “rules of engagement” with all stakeholders. This helps increase compliance and gets everyone engaged in the plan for infection prevention. Finally, you’ll want to identify key metrics or data for verifying your plan’s effectiveness.
Nearly every day, there are new findings related to the COVID-19 virus, its transmission, and recommendations for combatting the virus. The most important thing is to plan early and think carefully about the measures you will take to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission and then consider how those elements could impact other critical performance, safety or health criteria of the building. With some careful planning and good communication, you can work toward a successful and safe reopening.
Checklist for re-opening your building
Buildings are designed with occupancy and maintenance in mind. Consider carrying out the procedures listed below before reoccupying a building that has been closed due to COVID-19:
- Review standard building operating status during building closure (e.g. vacancies, HVAC schedules and set points).
- Assess the use of any new/proposed cleaning products
- Review janitorial procedures and protocols, including environmental health & safety procedures
- Evaluate building/engineering pre inspection tasks, including:
- Flush ventilation systems with maximum outdoor air 24 hours prior to inspection
- Flush potable cold and hot water systems for 10 minutes at all outlets
- Resume normal ventilation schedule, or assess capacity or need for additional outdoor air
- Perform site Inspection visual and infrared inspection of representative available surfaces for leaks/mold (ventilation, filtration and hygiene)
- Undertake basic IAQ indoor air quality review with emphasis on volatile organic compounds
- Collect potable water samples to characterize post flush water quality at domestic main
- Sample hot water temperatures (Point of Use)
- Schedule Legionella testing from cooling towers (optional)
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