Indoor Air Quality as a Measure of Success for Business Owners
Healthy employees are productive ones.
- By Tom Burgess, M. Elaine Dasti
- Sep 01, 2022
As we continue to move toward what we hope will be a post-pandemic world, there remains a heightened responsibility for business owners to protect their people from Covid-19 as well as providing a workplace prepared for potential future outbreaks.
We are in an increasingly hybrid world; some companies have adopted an all-remote culture while others are giving employees an opportunity to decide whether they work most effectively in an office, at home or both. While some are just now returning to offices, or have had several attempts to reopen, a significant amount of the population never left the workplace. This is particularly true for those in professions that can’t be done from home—hospital employees, factory workers and so on. Not only must we make considerations for the health of these workers but also for their peace of mind. For each environment, specific considerations must be addressed.
Indoor air quality has become increasingly important for both the businesses with staff returning to the workplace, and those that have been working on-site throughout the pandemic. Prevention of disease transmission has become an important criterion in assessing HVAC system and air quality. Before the pandemic this was not necessarily a key design consideration outside of medical facilities, and many existing HVAC systems may not meet or be able to meet newer guidelines for important factors like higher efficiency filters.
Assessing and improving existing HVAC systems can benefit from a combination of industrial hygiene and mechanical engineering expertise. HVAC systems serving densely occupied spaces are of critical importance since cross-contamination is more likely to occur in places where people assemble, such as conference rooms. In accordance with guidelines from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), we can determine the ideal amount of ventilation required for a given space based on use and occupancy. We can then test the quantity of outdoor airflow going to the equipment to confirm that it meets ASHRAE Standard 62.1 Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality.
When working with building owners to improve indoor air quality, there are several questions that need to be answered.
Which spaces are the highest priority? Different public spaces require different approaches to air purification. If the configuration of the room changes throughout the day, considerations must be made to account for that. Business owners should prepare to give as much detail as possible about their day-to-day activities when consulting with air purification professionals.
Is there an adequate amount of outdoor air going to the space? If the unit has an outdoor air connection, often we can simply confirm system performance and rebalance the outdoor airflow rate. Otherwise, systems may need to be modified.
Can we increase the ventilation rate above recommended values? Existing equipment may be able to perform effectively with enhanced ventilation rates. When this is not the case, methods to enhance ventilation, such as implementing energy recovery, may be considered.
Can we enhance filtration to MERV 13 or better? Higher efficiency filters can lower the concentration of infectious airborne particles, but these filters also have a higher pressure drop, which can impact system performance. Systems must be tested to determine whether the reduced airflow caused by the increased pressure drop is an acceptable operating point for the air-handling equipment.
Is there an opportunity to incorporate UV-C? Ultraviolet C (UV-C) technologies are available for in-duct surface and air disinfection, upper air/upper room decontamination and mobile roll-in type systems. There are many factors that influence the sizing of these systems and appropriate applications.
What about bipolar ionization? ASHRAE references the CDC’s position on bipolar ionization, indicating that manufacturer data should be carefully considered. When specifying these products, it is important to confirm that the equipment meets UL 2998 standard certification (Environmental Claim Validation Procedure [ECVP] for Zero Ozone Emissions from Air Cleaners) which is intended to validate that no ozone is produced. Manufacturers should provide case studies showing that their equipment has been tested by an independent third party with documented performance during as-used conditions. Post-construction testing to confirm that equipment is operating as publicized is also recommended.
Over the course of the pandemic, our most proactive clients have notably been municipalities, schools and apartment complexes. A prominent point of discussion has been schools, since almost all spaces are highly occupied, and the safety of children and teachers is of utmost importance. Preventing the spread of airborne contaminants is key, but measures to improve air quality must be implemented quickly and non-invasively. On the other hand, municipalities are concerned with the health of their employees and preventing the spread of airborne pathogens, despite their daily interaction with the public. Different still are apartment complexes that often have shared common areas, gathering spaces, fitness centers and so on.
We know that the most common way that Covid-19 spreads is through airborne contaminants. Microscopic particles can linger for hours after an infected person has entered a space. It is not only practical but necessary for businesses of all sizes to prioritize indoor air quality with a proactive approach. It makes occupants feel safe, but it also impacts an enterprise’s bottom line. Healthy employees are productive ones. On the heels of the “Great Resignation,” companies are placing a greater focus than ever on worker safety and comfort. A large part of that lies in reassuring people that their employers are doing everything in their power to protect them.
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.