The Importance of Indoor Air Quality Investments as Employees Return to the Office

Start with a comprehensive review of your HVAC systems.

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COVID-19 has forever changed our perception of indoor air quality (IAQ) in the workplace, but as an industry leader and expert in indoor air quality for over 36 years, I observed long before the pandemic how IAQ can contribute to worker productivity and the bottom line. Especially in this day and age, it's time for business leaders to learn more.

According to "Rethinking Buildings Post-COVID-19," a study commissioned by Honeywell and released in June of this year, 75% of facility managers in the U.S. say COVID-19 caused them to permanently rethink their mode of operation. Considering COVID-19 is an airborne virus, it is encouraging that the same study revealed nearly six in 10 respondents are now more likely to invest in indoor air quality optimization and other healthy building solutions.

Ideally, it should not take a pandemic to change the perception of facilities managers or other business leaders. IAQ has been affecting worker productivity and a company's bottom line all along. "The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function," a study released in October 2015 and conducted by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University, demonstrated that IAQ affects workers' cognitive function, or ability to think clearly. Study participants who worked in a green building environment with enhanced ventilation and reduced volatile organic compound (VOC) levels in the air scored 101% higher on cognitive tests than participants in conventional building environments.

A separate study, released in November 2015, "Economic, Environmental and Health Implications of Enhanced Ventilation in Office Buildings," determined that doubling the ventilation rate from the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) minimum cost less than $40 per person per year, but improved the performance of workers by 8% — equivalent to a $6,500 increase in employee productivity each year.

As more and more people return to in-person work in offices around the country, the question remains: What is the most efficient and effective way to achieve improved air quality and increased worker productivity?

I recommend facilities managers start with a comprehensive review of their HVAC systems and ask themselves the following questions:

1. What are your current best practices?

2. How do they compare to current CDC, ASHRAE and OSHA compliance standards?

3. Did your building experience any prolonged shutdown in the past year?

4. Did your HVAC system experience prolonged periods of shutdown or reduced capacity over the past 18 months?

After collecting this information, reach out to a certified IAQ firm with backgrounds in mechanical engineering, microbiology, industrial hygiene, building sciences, etc., that can conduct a complete evaluation of the HVAC system of your facility. It may be tempting to go with a popular technology that promises to improve IAQ and quickly install it, but it is important to understand there is no silver bullet solution. HVAC systems are complex and require someone with education, training and experience.

Many facilities may have been shut down or running at limited capacity for some time as employees worked remotely, leaving offices empty. Simply flipping the "on" switch could be a bad idea without proper environmental cleaning of your HVAC system first. Increased moisture and lack of outside air can turn your system into a breeding ground for dangerous pathogens such as legionella and black mold. In any case, an accredited professional can guide decisions in this regard. Everything a service provider offers should be scientifically based. Make sure they use the following best practice approach:

1. Evaluation

2. Lab support

3. Prescriptive recommendations

4. Monitor and measure

Be wary of firms or consultants that skip any of these steps or try to push any single type of technology.

After implementing recommendations from an accredited firm, be sure to share your efforts with employees by posting them onsite and through normal channels of communication. Consider updating them with any additional measures you implement moving forward. They will be grateful for the improvements and the willingness of management to invest in their comfort, performance and health. It will give them the confidence they need to return to an in-person work environment, and their increased productivity will help you continue to compete and succeed in your chosen industry.

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