Any C-suite executive looking to lure workers back into the office has likely spent more time thinking about indoor air quality and ventilation over the past year-and-a-half than at any other point in their pre-pandemic life.
That’s because healthy buildings have become the latest enticement to bring employees back into the office. As people slowly return to in-person work, they’re naturally concerned with how safe they’ll be. Companies continue to reassure workers that desks, computer keyboards, elevator buttons, and every other public surface are being sufficiently sanitized.
But now they’re also paying closer attention to how healthy the air is inside those buildings — and the impact this can have not only on preventing the spread of Covid-19 and other respiratory ailments but how air quality can affect cognitive function.
“I don’t think business people realize the power of buildings to not only keep people safe from disease but to lead to better performance,” said Joseph G. Allen, Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health associate professor and director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings program at the CNBC Workforce Executive Council summit on Wednesday. “Greater ventilation leads to significantly better cognitive function performance of employees. It’s good for worker health and productivity.”
“Droplet dogma is over”
Allen said the increased interest in the air quality inside buildings stems from a better understanding of how Covid-19 spreads. Cleaning surfaces and obeying the six-foot distancing rule made sense when the belief was that the virus spread through droplets emitted when we coughed or sneezed and these droplets couldn’t travel further than six feet.
The reality is that Covid-19 is spread through respiratory aerosols that travel well beyond six feet, Allen said. “When we’re talking, coughing, sneezing, or just breathing, we’re constantly emitting respiratory aerosols of different sizes,” he added. “If we’re infected, those particles carry the virus and can travel across any room and stay aloft for hours. The droplet dogma is over.”
An under-ventilated room or building means these respiratory aerosols will build up and can infect someone well beyond that six-foot distance. “All of the big outbreaks we’ve seen have the same characteristics,” Allen said. “Time indoors in an under-ventilated space. It doesn’t matter if it’s spin class, choir practice, or a restaurant. It’s the same fundamental underlying factors that are driving transmission.”
Businesses can take action to counter this, Allen said. “Just like we’ve made great gains in public health around sanitation, water quality, and food safety, indoor air quality is going to be part of that conversation moving forward,” he said.
Employees wear protective masks at a JLL office in Menlo Park, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Giving buildings a tune-up
The first step is for building managers to determine what systems are in place and if they are operating as they were designed to do. “It seems obvious, but oftentimes we put equipment in and then leave it for 10 or 15 years and never give it a tune-up like we do our cars,” Allen explained.
Maximizing the amount of outdoor air coming into the building is another step to take. And finally, Allen said air filters should be upgraded to what’s called MERV 13. (MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting value.) He explained that a typical building has a MERV 8 filter that captures about 20% of airborne particles. A MERV 13 filter will capture closer to 90% or more of …….