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Could energy-efficient design be the cause of ‘sick buildings’ in the workplace?

SHARE Could energy-efficient design be the cause of ‘sick buildings’ in the workplace?

An environmental services employee cleans a patient room at the University of Utah Hospital. The room is also sanitized using a machine called a rapid disinfector that emits ultraviolet C-spectrum light. UV-C light is germicidal – meaning it neutralizes the DNA of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens thereby eliminating their capacity to replicate and trigger disease.

James Mwizerwa, University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — As some Utahns begin to slowly return to workplaces closed by the pandemic, both employers and employees are examining how society can do so safely. But building design may hamper their efforts to keep COVID-19 transmissions from occurring.

“As we become more and more aware of the impact the physical environment has on our own health and cognition, this is dramatically changing the way in which we think about our physical environment and building construction materials,” said Kate North, workplace strategist and adviser at Colliers International commercial real estate company. “Years ago, it was the movement around ‘let’s make sure all the buildings are sustainable’ — thinking that was the right thing because our focus was completely on energy efficiency and the best way to do that is to really think about tightening up that building.”

“Because we focused on that piece of it, we created other problems,” she said. “That was really around the ability to create buildings that would invite and have the type of air quality that we need in terms of our own physical and health needs.”

She said companies are likely to begin making concerted efforts to provide workspaces that can offer higher indoor air quality and ventilation as well as changing the way workspaces look going forward to help enhance health and safety among employees.

“I’m working with a lot of clients right now, where not only are we doing a 6-foot distancing between spaces, but many of the workstations have been dropping down in height over the past five years,” she noted. “Now, to be able to support the COVID implications, people are ordering screens and partitions to get them up around 60 inches high.”

North said workspaces are becoming more compartmentalized to minimize potential health risks.

“Psychologically, people feel the need to have more protection from each other with a (virus) spread and most of those surfaces and workstations are becoming more wipeable,” she said. “In the past, we’ve had panel systems and things that have been more sound absorbing. And some of the older materials are in question in terms of how much are they absorbing the virus from an air quality perspective. But there are new materials that can actually become antimicrobial and actually begin to help clean and freshen the air, or at least reduce the concerns about the spread of the virus.” 

Speaking this month during a Facebook Live online forum, Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University, explained what provides a healthy environment in office buildings.

“Most buildings meet code and standards, the problem is that 100 years ago we used to set ventilation standards — the amount of fresh outdoor air that comes in — based on infectious disease transmission,” he said. “In the ’70s, we switched that to be largely around energy conservation, and what we did is we tightened up our building envelopes. We stopped letting our buildings breathe, and we created and brought in this era of sick buildings. So we lost our way a bit there in terms of designing and operating buildings for health, as opposed to these other conditions.”

He said a lot of the recommendations he has made in recent months are things that people could do right now in their building, their office, their home or car based on what they have and what their current heat, ventilation and air conditioning system can perform effectively.

“If you can increase that fresh outdoor air, increase the filter efficiency — that’ll go a long way to addressing airborne roots of exposure, and then the increased cleaning and disinfection protocols and then maintaining the physical distancing and washing,” he said. “We’re trying to address all three modes of disease transmission so it’s going to require not just doing a better job with the (HVAC) system, but it’s all these other controls as well.”

Meanwhile, one designer said the technology already exists to make our workplaces safe from contagions like coronavirus.

“The two things that really are important with COVID-19 — it’s touch and it’s airborne. So you’re transmitting by touch or by breathing in the pathogen,” said Karl Heitman, president of Heitman Architects in Chicago. “What we’re doing to buildings is to try to reduce all the chance for touch — operating controls through wireless technology, motion detectors for main doorways so that as you approach the door the motion detector opens the door; retrofitting doors and major hallways to be touchless and modifying elevators to be touchless.”

He also noted there is a ultraviolet C-spectrum light device that can disinfect cellphones or other electronic devices.

“There’s a UV-C wand that’s like the wand that you would have in an airport that detects metal when they go through (security),” Heitman explained. “But this one you can pass over a keyboard or a telephone, your work surface at night and it will just basically wipe out any pathogens.”

And the technology is advancing further.

“They’ve outfitted an indoor drone that has UV-C light on it that could be programmed for (a) nightly pass, kind of like a Roomba vacuum cleaner,” he said. “After you leave the office, it would basically fly all the way around and clean.”

UV-C light is germicidal — meaning it neutralizes the DNA of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens thereby eliminating their capacity to replicate and trigger disease. The method is nonchemical, relatively inexpensive and requires little maintenance.

“We’re looking at installing a UV spectrum light in ducts and air conditioning HVAC systems. The air conditioning systems developed today are already set up to receive that kind of UV-C light modules,” he said.

He said the systems are not that expensive and there are also units that are available for residential properties and houses.

One local hospital already employs UV-C light.

“We use the (UV-C unit) for our disinfection,” said Alessia Banning, infection prevention control director at University of Utah Health. “We use it in the terminal cleaning of all patients that have an infection that requires sort of isolation precautions.

If you’re in with COVID or if you’ve got ... some bug that can get passed from patient to patient, we’re going to radiate your room after you’re discharged,” she said. “Or if you’ve got a burn and you’re going to be here for several months, we’ll do it while you’re in the operating room to keep the room clean.”

She said the technology has been in use for several years and has been quite useful amid the coronavirus outbreak. For medical applications, the UV-C units cost approximately $100,000 a piece, but units can be less expensive for other applications.

“Various bugs have different sensitivities to radiation. We usually use the setting for the most difficult bacteria to kill, which are spore-forming bacteria,” Banning said. “We do have the option with COVID to lower the level of radiation, but we always keep it really high to kill the toughest bugs. We’ll place the unit in the room, flip it on and it will run for a duration that is usually around 15 minutes to get to up to a point where it will kill spores.”