Air Quality in the Workplace

by PlaceLabJun 17th, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing series about how to support wellness at work during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

As cities across the country gradually relax their quarantines, building owners and operators are working overtime on the best way to ensure employee happiness, safety and comfort, and to make sure that you’ll stay healthy once you return to the office. After all, safety is part of the psychological security that talent needs to continue to feel creative and inspired at work. Many buildings, for example, are reconfiguring their workplace design to decrease workspace density and allow for social distancing. They’re also making the use of face masks and hand sanitizers a part of business as usual, and putting in place new guidelines for office cleanliness and personal hygiene.

Even before COVID-19, building designers were already incorporating both analog and high-tech solutions to help to ensure the best air quality possible.

To be clear, taking steps like these aren’t just for show. They’ve been widely proven to help prevent infection. Still, some people are looking toward additional solutions for better indoor air quality even with these measures in place.

It’s worth pointing out that indoor air quality, ventilation and air circulation have been targeted for improvement since well before the pandemic. In 2019, for example, The New York Times reported that people’s cognitive abilities can be affected by heightened CO2 levels in enclosed spaces. Even before COVID-19, building designers were already incorporating both analog and high-tech solutions to help to ensure the best air quality possible.

 Any potential for airborne transmission depends on a variety of factors. “While the airborne spread of COVID-19 at a distance of more than six feet is plausible, no authoritative body has come out to state that this form of transmission is significant enough to warrant any change to public guidance,” points out Dr. Patrick Yu, a consulting physician with Corporate Medical Advisors. Some of the newer high-tech solutions available could take this effort to the next level, both in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.

Photo credit: Norwood Themes, Via Unsplash

Analog Solutions That Help Maximize Air Quality

There’s no one universal approach for improving the quality of the air in a given building. Many factors determine the most appropriate method, including the size, age and layout of the building; how many people work there; and the areas in which they tend to cluster. Where the building is located and the regional climate also plays a role. Given all these variables, engineers have to design the solutions that best fit each particular building. In order to do so, they will typically look to:

  • Increase ventilation and airflow. It’s often a good idea to start with the basics. Simply bringing more fresh air into an office is one of the most effective ways of improving air quality. In some cases, achieving that is as simple as opening the windows or adding more indoor plants. In others, the building may require mechanical ventilation through existing HVAC systems. Either way, circulating fresh air through buildings reduces the chances of people becoming sick from an airborne virus. In fact, by simply adjusting airflow patterns with increased ventilation, it’s possible to inhibit infectious aerosols from lingering in the air.

  • Filter impurities out of the air. Another helpful step is filtering the air already circulating around your office, as well as any fresh air that you bring in from outside. For the best results, it’s important to increase filtration as much as possible without significantly diminishing airflow. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends outfitting HVAC systems with a minimum of MERV 13 filters. Filters like these can help trap dust and a variety of unwanted particles and pollutants. They’re also effective at removing the aerosols generated by coughing, sneezing, breathing and other activities typically associated with the dissemination of airborne pathogens.

  • Managing temperature and humidity. The temperature and humidity of the air you’re breathing also matters. “It’s important to keep the air below 80 degrees Fahrenheit and work to maintain relative humidity levels of between 40 and 60 percent,” says Pedro Alicea, senior mechanical engineer at Hermanson, a leader in mechanical systems construction. “Studies have shown that doing so creates unfavorable conditions for pathogens, while helping to create an environment that makes immune systems more effective.” Ultimately, this is addressed by adjusting HVAC controls to maximize the amount of outdoor air entering into a building, and then using the system’s cooling and heating coils to temper the air and maintain the relative humidity.

Collectively, all of these tactics go a long way toward improving the quality of the air in any office environment. Additionally, many building owners and operators are evaluating a variety of technology solutions that can be layered on top, to help take air quality management to the next level.

High-Tech Solutions to Clean, Disinfect and Monitor the Air

While the tactics outlined above are very effective at improving air quality, many buildings are also looking at other technology-driven techniques. These include using long-standing solutions like bipolar ionization and UV lighting, as well as taking advantage of the latest advances in sensor technology. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail. And, remember, before utilizing any of these technologies, consult with your consulting team and the manufacturer.

Bipolar ionization

Bipolar ionization has been used in the United States since the 1970s, when it was first introduced as a tool to control pathogens in food manufacturing. When added to an HVAC system, the technology converts oxygen molecules into charged atoms before releasing them back into the air. Those atoms then attach to harmful substances like mold, bacteria and viruses, and ultimately neutralize them. Although the technology has already been used effectively against SARS, norovirus and various influenza strains, it’s not yet clear how effective the technology is in the fight against COVID-19. As such, it is important to test the efficacy of the technology in high-traffic areas such as elevator banks and cafeterias before investing in a total building solution.

Sensors

Sensors are an effective way of measuring various aspects of indoor air quality, including temperature, humidity and CO2 levels, all factors that help determine how long particulates, including viruses, remain in the air. Cold, dry air appears to allow particles to remain suspended for longer periods.

While sensors won’t eliminate unwanted viruses and other particulates from the air, they can identify trends in air quality and automatically signal when other tools, such as ventilation and filtration systems, should be turned on. Equally, if not more important, they can provide real-time transparency about the air quality of your office and can serve as an effective educational tool. Sensors also have the advantage of helping to make buildings more energy-efficient, since they make it possible for HVAC systems to run only when needed, resulting in considerable cost savings. 

UV lighting

Hospitals have been using ultraviolet light as a tool to help control viruses and bacteria for years. The technology relies on ultraviolet C (UVC) light, one of the three types of rays given off by the sun that the ozone layer filters out. Although the technology has a definite sanitizing effect, which has been shown to be effective with other coronaviruses, including SARS, UVC rays can also cause cancer, destroy DNA and permanently damage the cornea of the human eye. As a result, UV lighting systems for occupied spaces such as offices are shielded, so that there’s no risk of exposure. Air is passed over UV lamps for disinfection as part of either a fresh air intake or a recirculation system.

How Buildings Ensure Health and Safety

The quality of air has never been under more scrutiny than now. The good news is that indoor air quality has long been an essential part of building maintenance. In light of the pandemic, building owners and operators around the world have been taking the time to conduct rigorous reviews of their systems to ensure the health and safety of their occupants.  

Of course, you can do a lot yourself to stay safe when you get back to the office. Simply practicing social distancing, washing your hands, and using personal protective equipment like masks have all proven to be highly effective methods of reducing transmission. If everyone adheres to these basic practices, we’ll all be able to feel calmer and safer.