You may think you are prepared, but are you really prepared? As more organizations move from a planning phase to an active return to workplaces, schools, campuses and more, they are facing an urgent need to have resources at the ready from a building safety and repair standpoint. We’ve been closely tracking these spaces, and the trends we’re seeing may prompt many organizations and industries to think about what’s next for their own workplaces and facilities. Let’s take a look at what’s coming into sharper focus for those supporting industrial hygiene, safety, preparedness and response – not only as we face COVID-19, but also possible natural disasters or catastrophes that could compound the challenges we’re all working under during the pandemic.
Securing your bubble
We’re seeing the “bubble” concept playing out for sports teams, and also getting a glimpse into how effective – or ineffective – it can be based on the diligence of parties in isolation. From a practicality standpoint, the average organization can’t operate within a bubble, but the elements of a safety approach based on principles of isolation and testing continue to evolve.
How does this concept work on a smaller scale? Your bubble approach may differ based on the population you’re interacting with. You may find an effective strategy includes questionnaires for employees to complete every day, periodic environmental testing, individual daily health screening/temperature checks or regular COVID-19 testing. Yours may be as simple as increasing space between workstations and adopting a cohort approach to reduce the total number of individuals in buildings at the same time or to prevent intermingling. Regardless of the strategies used, putting a regimen in place that is supported, well communicated and consistent is what matters.
Including your vendors in this process is also important. For example, maybe your facility is undergoing some construction or maybe you outsource food services to a catering company. Maybe you are a school, but partner with a third-party group to support after-school programs or work with outside transportation providers. Are all of those parties being held to the same standard as those within your organization?
Adjustments in ventilation
Engineers are getting more requests from clients to audit their HVAC systems and fresh air ventilation as a means of reducing the potential level of airborne virus particles. While there's not a consistent standard to point to and no set number to hit, the rule of thumb is pretty straightforward. A higher volume of fresh air inflow combined with better filtration can help clear out impurities. This balance is impacted seasonally and must be adjusted to keep fresh air in the mix within the ventilation system’s ability to cool or heat that air. Your system may be able to incorporate a higher-degree filter, as well, but keep in mind that more energy may be required as the system works harder to process the air through more restrictive flow.
Schools are a good example for this scenario. Buildings may have been closed up for the summer, so while their HVAC systems are going through routine checks for standard maintenance, they can also be evaluated for fresh airflow and ventilation adjustments. HVAC engineers can help prioritize areas where the need for increased filtration and airflow is more critical – for example, spaces that are more crowded from a population standpoint or those where more vulnerable individuals are located.
Pooling for surface testing
Within the industrial hygiene world, surface testing has taken a new angle, similar to what’s being adapted for individuals’ COVID tests – pooling samples is the newest approach. In this process, a lab is able to run samples in a batch. If the batch tests negative, they can move on to the next. If it tests positive, they can then focus in on individual samples within the pool to figure out which triggered the result.
Grouping samples from a single building has several advantages over individual sample testing – increased speed within the testing process, reduced impact on testing capacity, and cost savings to name a few. In groups of 5-10, pool sample analysis can save five to 10 times on laboratory costs, which is significant. For larger buildings, more area can be covered with fewer swabs in this method, particularly if the swabs are representative of zones that align with cleaning protocols. If one swab tests positive, increased cleaning can be done within the whole zone.
Emergency response resources
Considering COVID-19, what happens if you have a positive exposure in your office? Any lag time can compound the negative impact of a catastrophe, open up more people to exposure, and/or increase downtime for your business and impact operations, productivity and revenue. If you’ve weighed options for workplace contact tracing, testing procedures or emergency cleaning protocols but not yet solidified plans and partners, aligning those in advance of an issue is becoming more and more important. Have you consulted with a certified expert to ensure your own facility’s processes are covering all important elements at a CDC-level standard? And beyond your in-house cleaning options for day-to-day maintenance, do you have advanced cleaning contractors ready to spring into action for immediate deep-cleaning and testing to ensure a safe facility if a critical need arises?
Think about weather events and unrest in the headlines. What happens if you have an existing recovery and repair plan that is over-reliant on resources that are also committed to others in your community? Will they have the capacity to ramp up during a surge event? Will they have access to supplies, like generators, that might be in high demand? What happens if that workforce is limited due to exposure or quarantine rules? Your day-to-day plan and local relationships may work for one-off situations, but could quickly get overtaxed when a catastrophe hits. Since downtime can compound a disaster, your CAT plan needs to be bigger than your day-to-day plan.
Proactivity is your friend
Nearly every organization or facility is facing similar safety and repair challenges as part of the unique circumstances we all face under the pandemic – many of these services haven’t been needed on such a wide scale or at such a degree of specialty before. With expected demand projected to increase in the short term – from schools planning for classes to resume to businesses looking to welcome remote workers back into offices – it’s important to be ready and align the right resources ahead of time.
From a business continuity standpoint, three “Rs” hold true: Readiness, resources, response. There’s a speed factor to response time that can give you an advantage over others in your market. Preparing your organization by securing strategic plans and resources can help you feel confident that your relationships are big enough and your network is strong enough, even if a supply chain is overtaxed. Avoid being reactionary. Proactivity is your friend.
> Read more from Keith Pokorny and Ed Reis on the Sedgwick blog: "Can you be sure your facility is clean and free of the coronavirus?"
> Visit Sedgwick's COVID-19 update center