Making sure that buildings are safe for post-pandemic use means that the discussion around workplace wellness has finally grown to include one fundamental but often overlooked issue – air quality, writes Priva UK Business Development Manager Adrian Scott.
There is much to celebrate in the fact that workplace wellness has risen up the agenda significantly in recent years. Regardless of business type or sector, there has been an increased willingness to invest in making workplaces more conducive to good health. Yet while this has led to major improvements in areas such as lighting and temperature control, there is one issue that has still often been overlooked – air quality.
On the most basic level, this is not surprising as a problem with air quality does not draw attention to itself to the same degree as, for instance, inadequate lighting. But the reality is that an air supply that is not effectively ventilated or filtrated can have huge negative implications. As University of Leeds Professor Cath Noakes recently told the BBC: “Air quality is invisible to us so we ignore it, yet it affects us day in and day out, carrying respiratory diseases which affect the probability of you getting infections” (1).
In this context Covid-19 could hardly be a louder wake-up call. Whilst our collective understanding of the virus will continue to deepen, it is now clear that it can remain airborne for longer periods and greater distances than originally thought – possibly beyond the 2m social distancing recommendations. Moreover, while the continuation of frequent hand-washing and surface cleaning is definitely critical, it is also becoming apparent how much impact the design and systems of a building can have.
EPA, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, is among the national organisations to have highlighted the importance of building systems:
“The layout and design of a building, as well as occupancy and type of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, can all impact potential airborne spread of the virus”(2).
Here in the UK, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) offers extensive guidance around workplace ventilation, stressing the role of natural and mechanical ventilation in “reducing how much virus is in the air” (3).
All of which means it is no surprise to find that air quality is now – finally – high on the priority list everywhere. It also spells increased obligation on employers – to ensure that their buildings have a healthy air supply as workers begin to spend more time in the office once again.
‘Better than the air outside’
Of course, it should never be forgotten that employers already have significant legal and regulatory requirements in this area. In the UK, acts such as the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Occupiers Liability Act 1984 emphasise the importance of providing a safe and healthy environment. The Code of Practice accompanying the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 indicates that “indoor quality should be at least equal to, but ideally better than, the air outside your building” (4).
Fortunately, there is now an abundance of resources that can steer employers in the right direction. For example, HSE document E40 contains a list of maximum exposure limits and occupational exposure standards, including detailed information on measuring dust and bacteria before and after it enters the building, as well as ensuring that ventilation rates are supportive of removing contaminants.
As the importance of air quality to both potential employees and partners becomes more critical, a forward-looking organisation will want to engage an independent company to undertake an Indoor Air Quality Assessment. This should be a specialist organisation with UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service) credentials and no connections to specific products or brands.
There is also much that can be done on a systems level. As well as ensuring that your mechanical ventilation technology is up to scratch, it’s important to have an effective resource for ongoing monitoring. This is where a modern building management system – and cloud-based monitoring and reporting tools like those manufactured by Priva – can can be invaluable. This kind of technology can help you to create (and maintain) a healthy indoor climate with the best possible air quality and thermal comfort.
With leading scientific researchers and disease specialists calling for a “paradigm shift” in our approach to air quality, and tighter regulations to back this up (5), it’s an issue that isn’t going to return to its former invisibility. Air quality is on course to feature every bit as prominently as other elements in the workplace wellness debate, and the smart employers will be taking action now to ensure their air-related infrastructures are fit for the future.
Adrian Scott will be speaking about local and remote management of healthier, better buildings at the Public Sector Sustainability Association’s online conference on June 23rd 2021.
(1) & (5) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-57102372