Offices and laboratories are often close knit workspaces and as we have learnt that COVID-19 primarily infects via airborne transmission. Research estimates between 60% to 90%. From these statistics, infection prevention specialists, have accumulated five of the top questions on employees and employers minds regarding COVID-19 and returning to work safely.
With more people returning to workspaces, it is crucial that employees know just how they are being kept safe. For example, it is now well-recognised that SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) primarily infects via airborne transmission, with research estimates ranging from 60% to 90%. This creates risk in workspaces as viral aerosol/droplets can travel several metres and remain airborne for long periods of time, especially in indoor environments due to air currents. The vaccine has proven to be an essential step in reducing COVID-19 infections. However, vaccines alone are not enough to keep employees safe as they are not 100% effective.
Here you can find five key questions to ask your employer about the safety of your workspace.
1) Have you looked at the latest workplace regulations and HSE guidance on safe workspaces?
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published their guidance for UK organisations on making workspaces COVID-secure. Your employer should keep up to date with the latest advice so that they can be sure they are keeping their employees safe.
They should have recently updated their company risk assessment by including a COVID-19 risk assessment. This involves creating guidelines on mitigations such as social distancing, cleaning schedules and ventilation.
Other important regulations include The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. This states that provision should be made to ensure that workplaces are ventilated with a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air. If adequate ventilation cannot be achieved, the HSE states that local air cleaning and filtration units can be used instead. The most effective are high-efficiency filters and ultraviolet-based devices.
The proposed Building Regulations update goes further and states that "buildings should have the ability to provide adequate outdoor air to all occupied spaces without recirculating air within spaces or between different spaces, rooms or zones, unless the ventilation system has an ultraviolet filter, HEPA filter or other germicidal filter." (The Building Regulations, Approved Document F – Ventilation: Volume 2: buildings other than dwellings (out to consultation)).
2) Are you ready and compliant to have your staff back in the office?
Air quality within the workplace is now more important than ever, and the relevant regulations are being updated to reflect this. Your employer may not be aware of the changes to the legislation and regulatory guidance that has been quietly instigated over the past few months.
PP-L can help your organisation to make sense of these regulations and specify infection prevention solutions to ensure they are compliant and keeping all of their employees and other stakeholders safe.
It is important to be aware that due diligence should be undertaken on any technologies prior to installation to ensure they are suitable and effective in the specific environment they are intended for. At PP-L, we design and specify our solutions based on the organisation’s individual requirements, so your organisation can be sure that these interventions will perform as well as expected.
3) Is there any ventilation in the building, and is it sufficient to suppress viral transmission?
Good ventilation reduces the concentration of viruses in the air and therefore reduces the risks from airborne transmission.
Opening windows will help to dilute the air and thus minimise the risk to a modest degree, but this is not as effective as removing the old air as well. The proposed Building Regulations state that the new standard for ventilation is 10L/second per person, and 15L/second per person in some spaces. Much of the UK's mainstream property will struggle to comply with the new standards for adequate ventilation to reduce transmission risk.
In order to ensure that ventilation is adequate, you should ask your employer if they measure their air quality. The HSE recommends that carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors can be used to assess if ventilation is poor. Air sampling is also a useful tool to assess air quality and is more accurate as it is more sensitive to microbes that could cause respiratory problems.
Many organisations will need to use additional ventilation systems in order to ensure adequate ventilation. If your organisation uses an HVAC system, generally, it should be operating at a rate that can provide at least 10 air changes per hour. However, this rate depends on the nature of your workplace. Your organisation is unlikely to install HVAC systems into its existing buildings as they are very costly to fit and there is still a risk of dead air zones.
Alternatively, UVGI products, such as the ones PP-L offer, provide a safe, practical and cost-effective solution.
4) Have you considered how your staff will be protected from any future health risks?
Lack of fresh air from outside leads to a build-up of indoor air contaminants, which can cause negative health effects such as sick building syndrome (SBS). SBS is a condition where more than 20% of the people within a building show symptoms of illness for a period of more than two weeks. According to experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to 30 percent of new or remodelled buildings have unusually high rates of complaints relating to air quality. It has been suggested that this is due to the lack of available fresh air.
At PP-L, we can help your organisation to reduce levels of indoor air contaminants through our world leading pathogen prevention technologies. This will also help them to future-proof their workspace(s) and ensure they are proactive in mitigating any upcoming health risks.
5) Have you considered the benefits of implementing infection intervention technologies?
Guidance around the use of germicidal ultraviolet filters has now been included in the Health and Safety Executive's latest update on COVID-secure Workplaces – Ventilation and the new global Well Buildings Standard – Health & Safety.
Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) systems, such as the ones, experts PP-L Biosafety offer, inactivates microbes to sterilise the air and, when used properly, are perfectly safe to use even when the room is occupied. The technology has decades of proven effectiveness against several bacteria and viruses, including all currently discovered strains of the current coronavirus.
The implementation of most UVGI technologies, as well as ventilation improvements, could be partially funded through the "super-deductions scheme" announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the March 2021 Budget, as most are eligible as integral features. Under the new rules for annual capital allowances, one can offset eligible plant and machinery or integral features against corporation tax.
Organisations should be aware of the benefits of these new technologies as they can help to make them safer, more resilient and ready for the future.
These questions should offer a good starting point for you and could act as a prompt to your employer to further consider these questions. It is important that organisations act now to become more resilient to both current and future infection risks.
Author: Paul Waldeck is Chief Technical Officer – Executive Director at PP-L Biosafety, ppl-biosafety.com