Immediate Steps to Reduce the Coronavirus Threat in Reopened Offices

The novel coronavirus and the threat of Covid-19 are not going away anytime soon. For at least summer 2020 and likely into the following 3-4 quarters, there will be a threat within global workplaces of a hyper-local outbreak of coronavirus, which may have major consequences for workers and business operations.

With reopening starting to take place in the United States, facility managers, engineers, and HR professionals should be developing and implementing comprehensive programs that ensure workplace safety and minimize the chance of a hyperlocal outbreak of the novel coronavirus. This is a critical responsibility for leaders who can make an impact; fortunately there are a few relatively simple strategies that can help reduce transmission risks to staff and visitors in your facilities.

About this guide:
The recommendations below are designed for leaders that need to make quick decisions on reopening or operating facilities, especially offices and other commercial sites. It contains recommendations that may not be sufficient for a high-traffic business such as a restaurant, bar, hotel, or retail store. Additionally, there is an inherent bias in these recommendations towards office workers, or for companies where work location, style, time of day, and type of work are amenable to flexible arrangements.

Mechanical Recommendations for Coronavirus Mitigation

  1. AIR FILTERS. Replace all air filters prior to staff return with HEPA or MERV 16 filters. If MERV 16 is not available, purchase the highest MERV rating possible, knowing that at this point MERV 16 or higher is the likeliest to reduce or block viral movement through a filter membrane. Ensure filters are changed at the frequency specified by the manufacturer – if not more frequently – and provide comprehensive PPE for staff to protect from microbiological exposure during filter changes and disposal.
  2. RELATIVE HUMIDITY. Maintain humidity between 40-60% to maximize human health and minimize viral transfer.
  3. VENTILATION. Increase the frequency of air handler operating time, the rate or number of air changes, or the ventilation rates in order to ensure stale air is not present in occupied spaces.
  4. FACE MASKS. It may sound strange, but the major “mechanical” recommendation is to require all occupants to wear masks or good quality improvised cloth face coverings over the mouth and nose. The ventilation and filtration strategies below cause air turbulence from fans and ventilation spreading viral droplets shed from an infected person. In a circumstance where circulation and ventilation are maximized and people are not wearing masks, the circulation and ventilation could potentially increase infection risk.
  5. CARBON DIOXIDE SENSORS. Use existing carbon dioxide sensors as a proxy for the viral contamination risk. The carbon dioxide content of indoor air has long been used to determine the level and timing of ventilation needed in a given space. Carbon dioxide sensors in a space can indicate occupancy and trigger the ventilation system to provide an air change. If your system has no sensors, consider integrating a compatible carbon dioxide sensor with your BMS / ventilation system. If you cannot find one, there are many standalone sensors that can be used and manually measured to provide data while you fine-tune ventilation and circulation.
  6. FLUSH ALL PLUMBING FIXTURES. For facilities that have been latent for days or weeks, standing water may release contaminants in the distribution pipes. Cycle water on each floor and in each zone of the building by running sinks for an appropriate period of time to flush all visible contaminants and empty the volume contained within the distribution system in your facility.

Janitorial Recommendations for Coronavirus Mitigation

  1. HAND WASHING. Optimize the hand washing process in restrooms and kitchens
    • Provide automatic soap dispensers, even the temporary use of household dispensers would be preferable to a contact dispenser.
    • Do not use “antibacterial” soap thinking it will affect the coronavirus, a regular soap supplied generously will kill the virus, provided proper hand washing.
    • Provide disposable hand towels and turn off automatic hand dryers.
    • Add kick plates and hands-free opener hooks to doors.
  2. HAND SANITIZER. Offer in high-traffic areas an alcohol-based hand sanitizing wipe, if available. Alcohol-based hand sanitizing wipes, such as PDI Sani-Hands wipes, are shown to be more effective at killing viruses and bacteria because the wipe itself helps remove the pathogen from hands. In lieu of this, offer alcohol-based hand sanitizers to all staff and guests.
  3. HEPA VACUUM FILTERS. Install and maintain HEPA filters in all vacuum cleaners. Change filters or clean regularly.
  4. HIGH-TOUCH SURFACE CLEANING. Increase the frequency of cleaning in restrooms and pantries and other high-touch areas to ensure that any contaminants are present for the shortest period of time possible. Focus on high-touch surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks, touch screens, and ATM machines. Ensure surface disinfecting products including wipes and sprays are only used on surfaces and not on humans unless approved and labeled for multiple purposes.
  5. REDUCE AMENITY USE. Reduce or modulate community use of pantries, bottle fillers, coffee pots, etc. and other amenities where individual hygiene is variable and safety is not controllable. Close amenities that cannot be guaranteed to be safe such as company gyms.

Human Resources & Emergency Office Planning for Coronavirus Mitigation

  1. REMOTE WORK. Allow staff who can work from home to do so, at their own discretion. Train leaders that are biased towards in-person work to develop new success metrics that allow for remote work.
  2. REDUCE OPEN PLAN DENSITY. Develop a plan to reduce in-office density to allow for 6 square feet in all directions from workstations. A 6-foot-radius circle around someone is 113 square feet. Reduce daily density to 1 staff member per 113 square feet in all open plan settings (excluding common spaces and corridors). Require anyone who shares an enclosed office with one or more people to trade off schedules.
  3. CIRCULATION PATTERNS. Relabel circulation patterns in corridors where 6 foot distancing cannot be maintained under two-way traffic conditions. Require all staff and visitors to adhere to the new circulation patterns.
  4. FACE MASKS. Yes, we’re repeating this recommendation. It’s important. Require all staff and visitors to wear a mask covering mouth and nose at all times. Provide a mask for staff who cannot or will not provide their own. Make it clear that the purpose of the mask is not to protect the wearer from Covid-19, rather, to protect people around the wearer.
  5. PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY POLICY. Develop a brief policy to maximize the effectiveness of personal responsibility for health and viral shedding. For instance:
    • Require anyone with a temperature above normal to stay home for 72 hours, and if possible for them to have a coronavirus test administered and negative results before returning to work.
    • Require anyone with a member of their household with coronavirus symptoms to work from home for 14 days, and if possible for them to have a coronavirus test administered and negative results before returning to work.
    • Require anyone with a member of their household with coronavirus symptoms to report cases and symptoms of everyone in their household on a daily basis for 21 days.
    • Have a specific policy that states there will be no retaliation for becoming ill or disclosing a sick family member or other close contact.
  6. UNEQUAL RISK POLICY. Companies that strive for equality among staff members must realize there is not equality when it comes to a staff member’s risk from coronavirus or the risk of a member of their household. Companies must allow for employees that have higher risk profiles or live with or care for someone that has a higher risk profile to develop a work plan that works for them and the company and perhaps differs from the rest of staff. This includes any staff member that:
    • Is elderly or cares for someone who is elderly;
    • Is immunosuppressed or cares for someone who is immunosuppressed;
    • Has a preexisting or high-risk condition, or cares for someone with a preexisting or high-risk condition;
    • Lives with or cares for an infant;
    • Lives with someone in a high-risk profession or who works in a high-risk workplace, e.g. clinical or support staff in nursing homes, hospitals, etc.

We would be happy to discuss this list with anyone unsure about how to implement these procedures. Please feel free to contact us to discuss further.

Disclaimer: Recommendations above are summarized and presented for convenience. Always follow detailed recommendations from the CDC and other federal, state and local health officials and consult a properly credentialed health expert if you have any questions about safe implementation.

John Haugen, LEED GA and WELL AP is Principal and Client Director at Third Partners, a green building and sustainability advisory firm founded in 2013 in New York. As a WELL AP, John is an expert in designing facilities and operations plans that maximize human health and safety.