by Michael L. Walker, PE
Vice President, Principal Engineer

We are not out of the woods yet, as the health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic remain. However, the phased opening of our economy and the opportunity to return to work is a measured and controlled path that appears to make sense. Though, this will put those returning workers’ health (and their family’s health) at risk.

Therefore, it is incumbent on building and business owners/managers to do what they can to make returning to the workplace as safe as possible. Planning, monitoring, and communication will be the cornerstones of creating a safe work environment to minimize the health risks associated with this virus. 

These cornerstones must include:

  • Implementing prevention techniques;
  • Preparing the building or space for occupancy;
  • Developing methods to monitor practices; and
  • Developing an incident response and communication plan

Each workplace is unique and there is no “one size fits all“ plan or set of practices that will work for every company. Your workplace has its own set of circumstances that could present health risks influenced by your organization’s business type, its customer or contractor traffic flow, the building’s system configuration and age or space configuration as well as other factors.

First a word of caution: Please involve your staff and consult with industry experts during the planning process. Do not go at this alone; as you will likely forget something. Furthermore, if you have a multiple tenant building, include tenant representatives on this team and keep everyone informed throughout the process of planning and returning to work

Regardless of the complexity of your situation, prevention is the first building block in creating a safe work environment. The first foundational prevention technique is the screening of employees, visitors, contractors, maintenance and custodial staff. In your planning, consider the following questions: How will you do this? How will you keep records? Will you limit entry to the building or specific areas? Will masks or respirators be required?

The second prevention technique is social distancing and it will be the responsibility of business leaders to plan for and support this practice in the workspaces that will be occupied again. If you have been to the grocery store recently, you know that this can be more difficult than it would first appear. You must obviously consider working areas and tenant suites, but perhaps more importantly, attention must be paid to public and common areas. Does the workplace have breakrooms or a cafeteria? Do not forget elevators and stairwells, which will present some unique and key concerns. You may need to add appropriate signage to provide instruction and reminders.

Having a plan to help occupants practice these prevention techniques and other safe practices during this pandemic is essential. However, building owners must also concern themselves with readying the building for occupancy. First, a plan for cleaning and disinfection must be considered. An enhancement of the typical cleaning regimen will be required and must clearly address common areas along with surfaces that are often touched, such as elevator buttons, handrails, and door handles. 

These areas and contact surfaces will demand specific cleaning and disinfection for many months to come. You might want to walk through the space with your custodial personnel or contractor while developing a cleaning and disinfection plan.

Building systems, such as water and HVAC must also be considered. Water systems and point-of-use equipment must be properly flushed to ensure that residual disinfectant remains in the plumbing lines. Give particular attention to filtration systems and end users (like coffee makers and ice makers).

HVAC systems should be examined to ensure proper operation; often that will require that your maintenance contractor be given an opportunity to inspect and test the entire system and make appropriate recommendations to ensure that the systems are working properly. Proper operation, along with the following changes, can help minimize health risks during this time: increase fresh air make up, adjust setbacks to extend occupancy hours of operation, install higher efficiency filters (e.g., MERV 13), and consider controlling relative humidity to reduce the viability of the virus.

Next, emergency planning needs to be considered and not all aspects of incident and emergency preparedness may come to mind. Obviously, you will need to consider what actions will be taken if an occupant or contractor contracts COVID-19. What instructions will you give to other occupants? Will you isolate areas where the occupant worked? What additional cleaning and disinfection of the area will be conducted? What is the return to work policy?

How are other emergency response practices/procedures impacted? Consider evacuation routes and assembly areas, keeping social distancing in mind. Will fire drills become standard practice in all workplaces? With remote workers becoming the norm, all employees may not be in the workplace; How will actual occupants on site ,when the emergency occurs, be accounted for?  

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” 
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Planning for Going Live
In November 1957, The New York Times reported on a speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower, where the President said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Planning is important, but action and updating them as necessary are what make the planning work.

So, before you launch your programs and procedures, consider the following (particularly with multiple tenants or business units in the workspace):

  • Will you require identical practices throughout building, for all tenants or business units?
  • How will you monitor compliance with the procedures and practices? Make sure you consider all occupants along with custodial and maintenance staff.
  • How will timely communication be conducted? This includes reporting of incidents, sharing monitoring records, changes in procedures, etc. 

The greater the number of independent business units that exist in the building, the greater the difficulty and complexity. Therefore, effective communication and planning on how that will be done in advance will go a long way to protecting employees, tenants, and contractors. There has to be a way to quickly communicate with all potentially affected personnel who enter the premises as well an opportunity for feedback to drive improvements.

A Final Thought
You might consider your liabilities and responsibilities as a business or building owner or manager. It would be wise to consult legal counsel as appropriate in order to understand your role in our combined efforts to “get back to work.”

How Can We Help?
The EI Group, Inc. has been providing services to employers to help protect the health of employees since the beginning of this unprecedented time. The lessons learned over the past several months, combined with our health, safety, and engineering expertise, can be a valuable asset as business and building owners prepare to return to “normal” and get back to work. Contact us today at (800) 717-3472 or [email protected].