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Breathe easy… preparing your building for a return to work

May 12, 2020

By Tim Sadleir

We expect that a return to ‘normal’ will be some time away, but as we plan for that day it’s important to consider how it may be possible to reduce the health risks in your workplace

In Australia and New Zealand we are starting to consider our return to the workplaces that have largely sat silent and empty for months. But there is an understandable wariness regarding a second wave of the disease. It is no surprise to us therefore, that we have had many clients reaching out, asking how to make sure their office and workspaces are safe places to return to.

Reading the temperature

One recurring question we are asked is can we identify potential COVID-19 carriers before they enter the workspace to limit the risk of infection? 

Yes, we can.

We recently worked with a client on a closed-circuit television (CCTV) analytics service which screens the temperatures of people entering a building. This is preferable to one-to-one testing as it assesses all people entering the area concurrently and immediately identifies anyone with a fever, for whom secondary testing can be offered. To ensure success continual monitoring of the thermal image to identify elevated temperatures in real time is required.  Building owners need to consider organisational policy, resourcing, coverage of all access doors (or restrictions) and privacy (notify tenancies, visitors), particularly around retention/use of imagery.

Such a system can be used as a temporary measure in areas of high traffic without slowing the flow of movement, and is particularly applicable in office buildings, retail outlets, universities, transport hubs or hospitals. By reducing the need for individual testing, it saves time spent in queues and increases public confidence in the safety of the environment. Ultimately, it could save lives.

What’s in the air? 

Another common question we receive is about existing air conditioning systems – is the air conditioning harbouring particles that could be dangerous? Could the air-conditioning system spread the virus and make people sick? 

Whilst there is currently no proof that the COVID-19 can be transferred via air conditioning and heating units, nor is there yet any documented evidence to the contrary. However, based on the research available currently, the risk from a well-maintained HVAC system in a modern commercial building causing transmission of COVID-19 is understood to be LOW.

Simplistically, what it all comes down to is airflow, circulation, temperature and humidity. Managing these factors to create environments in which the virus is less likely to thrive is a good idea. 

Air flow optimisation

We know that ventilation can dilute the number of droplets in the air – the method by which the virus travels. Natural ventilation through solutions such as motorised window-driven natural ventilation is preferable and should be considered. Air recirculation is to be discouraged and heat recovery systems should be deactivated for the duration of the pandemic.

Most commercial systems produce internal conditions with relative humidity of between 40—60%, which research suggests has a positive impact on virus deactivation, human susceptibility to viruses and cross infection rates.

To optimise your air-conditioning system, we would recommend you confirm it has been properly installed and commissioned and that it is working correctly. Outside air flow rates and controls should also be checked to ensure that at least the minimum outside air rates are being achieved. Where it is possible, you may wish to increase outside air rates and consider the retrofitting of economy cycles.

Maintain maintenance

Preventative maintenance is also highly recommended and should be carried out as prescribed by the air-conditioning system documentation, to recognised standards and adhering to proper procedures. It should preferably be carried out by qualified maintenance technicians wearing appropriate PPE, and any waste, such as air filters, should be carefully disposed.

Although only hospital-grade HEPA filters will effectively eliminate surviving particles from circulation, air filters should be changed more regularly than scheduled. Cleaning and disinfection of heating and cooling coil surfaces is easily achieved using approved methods and by approved maintenance personnel.  

What’s next?  

We expect that a return to ‘normal’ will be some time away, but as we plan for that day it’s important to consider how it may be possible to reduce the health risks in your workplace. The measures we’ve outlined here are relatively straightforward, quick to implement, and have the potential to save lives. 

  • Tim Sadleir

    Tim is a lead designer specialising in technical projects across large-scale commercial and residential project.

    Contact Tim
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