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Harvard Talks: I am Infected After Returning to Work

Building health is today a top priority for owners and tenants, but how do we know our offices are safe to re-enter?

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If you’re infected with COVID-19 after returning to your workplace, will your employer pay for the cost?



As we start to think about returning to work, shopping, and recreation, there is much talk about transformed workplaces and innovative social distancing designs. But how will companies, workers, and customers have confidence that these new measures will actually be effective at protecting them? Infected with Covid-19 after returning to your workplace?

Beyond what we can do as individuals to reduce our risks of exposure, are there objective measures employers can use to validate what is effective? The answer, fortunately, is yes.

Many claims will be made over the next few weeks and months that stores, restaurants, offices, and processing plants are now at a level of reasonable safety to open up. Much media attention has been paid to easing restrictions—basically increasing the available supply of offices, restaurants, colleges, stores, and factories.


The demand side should be of equal or greater concern: Will shoppers, diners, students, and workers feel safe returning? Can they trust the place if these were previously infected? How can they be comfortable that the space is safe beyond just taking someone’s word for it?

Cautious and shell-shocked employees and customers—as well as skittish lenders and insurance companies—can be expected to look for some objective standard of reasonable care before they will concur that indoor environments are reasonably safe. There are likely to be do-it-yourselfers, top shelf evaluators—and charlatans. You will need to be able to tell them apart.

What to ask for: Infected with Covid-19? What gets measured gets done

Here are key requirements to ask of any service provider offering to certify your work setting as a healthy building. These best practices apply for employers, employees, and customers alike.

Our research over many decades in public health and in commercial real estate suggests that several categories of Health Performance Indicators can offer up objective data about the current status of a building and identify meaningful fluctuations over time. How are these HPIs gathered and interpreted? With a combination of settings, sensors, screening for symptoms, surveys, and evaluation of statistics. There are many, but here are examples of each.

Infected with Covid-19? Settings: Air flow and other engineering steps. Before you think of moving back into your office building or shop, you should check on basic metrics that any building manager should easily be able to evaluate, including fresh air volume, fan capacity, and filtration effectiveness. We have seen many organizations pinch pennies to save on electricity charges or filter-replacement expenses, at the cost of thousands of dollars in lost time, reduced productivity, and suboptimal indoor air working conditions. Ventilation and air quality are crucial healthy buildings tools in fighting viruses and maintaining health.

Temperature and humidity can have significant impact on disease transmission. Most people associate low humidity with the winter, but improperly tuned air conditioning can also drop indoor summertime humidity levels well below the 50-60 percent recommended to minimize viral transmission.

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Infected with Covid-19? Sensors: Air quality and other measurable conditions. While it’s not currently possible to test directly for coronaviruses in the air, other measures like particulate counts, carbon dioxide (CO2 )concentration, and the presence of volatile organic compounds are excellent proxies for overall system performance. These take the pulse of your workspaces just as a doctor would record your physical pulse, offering a quick and continuous check that everything is performing as it should.

As an illustration, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are about 410 parts per million (or ppm). Our double-blind experiments showed measurable cognitive impairment at concentrations ranging to 1,400 ppm, a level frequently encountered in a classroom or conference room. Stuffy or ill-ventilated rooms often measure higher.

This article appeared first on HBS


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