Covid-19: Changing The Air We Breathe At Work

The global COVID-19 pandemic has made many of us better understand the harsh realities of pathogens in the air we breathe and how, without the proper ventilation, we could be exposed to various cases of flu and colds. As a result of this concern, businesses are having to update their health and safety policies and precautions. Amongst the top priorities, ventilation is one of the most urgent areas to review and reassess. 

COVID-19 and ventilating spaces

After returning in several devastating waves, controlling the rate of infection became a critical priority for many offices. The path to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 has become clearer in time. As the virus and its many mutations are transmitted primarily through droplets of water in the air and aerosol, best practice suggests how COVID-19 is best prevented through the use of regular ventilation and face masks. 

Presented with this information, organisations, schools, charities, and businesses from all industries reconsidered their indoor air quality and its impact on controlling the spread of COVID. When reviewing air quality, it wasn’t surprising that many discovered they didn’t have the best infrastructure to support cleaner, regulated airflow with proper, optimised ventilation.    

In many industries, the workforce has been remote or working on a hybrid arrangement for at least 18 months. As many are now returning to the office on limited capacity, this phased re-entry to the office has been measured as COVID-19 – and one of its many variants – is still prevalent in the wider UK population. The troubled attempt to control the spread of the virus has caused anxieties to grow in the workplace. To address this, many offices will need to demonstrate how they are committed to creating safe working environments for employees. 

Understanding air quality

With such a current focus on health and wellbeing – and airborne illnesses creating a scare – increasingly the role and relevance of air quality is becoming a workplace issue. It’s not just a trend that ends with the pandemic either. The wintertime flu – which annually is responsible for thousands of GP visits – is another example of a virus that can be airborne and is highly contagious. 

Air quality has a huge, often understated, importance beyond direct exposure to pathogens; environmental pollution could be responsible for 40,000 early deaths every year. Exposure to air pollution is commonly minimised to just those fumes inhaled when walking alongside a busy road. In fact, sources of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are near-ubiquitous in daily life and these range from perfumes and cleaning products to building materials and mattresses. The problem is how ongoing and unregulated exposure to VOCs can lead to long-term health issues. Poor air quality is most often associated with sick building syndrome, which can lead to severe and ongoing illness and higher rates of absenteeism as employees report symptoms of tiredness. 

Air quality is an easily missed opportunity to improve the health of a building’s inhabitants through carefully managed building maintenance and facilities management cleaning. Polluted food and water are highly regulated in the consumer market – but the air seems to be a missed opportunity to nurture our health further. 

Considering how every person ingests 11,000 litres of air every day, the quality of the air we breathe is rarely debated or, at least, regulated to the same measures as food and water. But the pandemic is setting the stage to change this as air quality becomes a part of the wider public health consciousness. 

Healthy buildings start with better air 

The importance of regular and proper ventilation was highlighted in the pandemic, causing many organisations to act quickly with their future investments. Poor building ventilation has become the primary enemy of employee health, especially when they’re in an office. The priority for air quality has become so urgent that a recent announcement from the government stressed how it would fit classrooms across England with air monitors. Proving popular, initiatives of this kind are already being picked up by businesses wanting to ensure the health of their returning employees. This sense of urgency has caused many to partner with corporate office specialists to ensure that a building remains at its healthiest – fighting against the various pathogens through deep cleans, ventilation and other security measures.  

Many offices began to invest in proper ventilation as soon as its importance became more widely understood. During this time, hard FM providers found new ways to enhance the turnover of air in buildings, creating safer and more efficient environments. The trouble with increasing fresh air intake is the wider strain it causes on a building’s systems. Even the task of regulating indoor temperatures has become more difficult, because of energy usage. But many businesses – particularly those operating modern offices – may quickly discover how such measures are unnecessary, if costly and energy-hungry. More effectively, an air sensor can help regulate the quality of the air circulating within a site. CO2 monitors offer a cost-effective way of judging ventilation. Of course, there are more sophisticated options on the market too – which will review everything from air pressure to estimated viral load. With this kind of technology readily available, buildings can monitor air quality within their everyday performance ratings. 

Air quality and the future 

The quality of air matters to a building’s occupants, employers and everyone who comes into contact with your site. But with targets to create a greener country and the UK government’s ambition to hit net zero by 2050, monitoring CO2 and other air pollutants will become increasingly important for organisations to demonstrate a level of commitment to nurturing sustainability. 

 The many pressures of the pandemic have accelerated rapid technological innovation, which has changed the way we work, socialise and, in the coming months, has the potential to change so much more. 

About the author: JohnPaul Pearson is the Business Support Director at Anabas, a boutique facilities management company in London. JohnPaul is responsible for the procurement of all goods and services required for the range of FM services provided.

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