While the world waits for a safe and viable vaccine, we’re all having to find ways to live with the risk of Covid-19. In the workplace, reduced numbers, social distancing, one-way systems, office hygiene and the use of barriers are all reducing the potential for the virus to spread. Another simple measure to reduce risk is ventilation.
Government Advice on Covid-19
Viruses spread more easily in unventilated, stuffy environments where people are in close proximity to each other. Governments and international bodies were quick to recognise the potential that workplace ventilation had to help combat the spread of the virus. In the UK government’s briefing of 29th April, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said:
“There is a definite truism across all of scientific literature, that ventilation is the most critical part of reducing transmission from all respiratory viruses.”
Along with reduced office occupancy and social distancing, general ventilation is one of the basic strategies for on-site working during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has issued guidance to businesses regarding ventilation during the pandemic.
General Ventilation in Offices
In law, employers have a duty to ensure that the workplace has an adequate supply of fresh air. The current pandemic hasn’t changed this legal requirement. As good general ventilation can reduce transmission risk, the HSE suggests that employers should look at how they can increase the amount of fresh air in the building, as well as mechanical strategies they can employ to help to improve overall office design integrated with ventilation.
Increasing fresh air can be a simple as opening more windows and doors. If doing so, it’s important to remember to keep fire doors shut.
Ceiling & Desk Fans
Early on in the pandemic, there was some concern about how ceiling and desk fans might help to spread the virus. The risk associated with fans are extremely low, and they do in fact help to reduce the build-up of stagnant air. Air that is effectively ‘stuck’ can become a repository for viruses, and fans can help to disperse this air and prevent stagnation. This method should only be used in conjunction with good ventilation. Fresh air needs to enter the space, as the stagnant or used air is expelled.
Air Conditioning in Offices
Any Covid-19 transmission risk associated with air conditioning systems is extremely low, as long as good ventilation and an adequate supply of fresh air is maintained. You can continue to use any kind of air conditioning system, but centralised ventilating systems present marginally more risk. These remove and circulate air to different rooms around the building, therefore presenting a small but not negligible risk of spreading the virus. This small risk can be completely avoided by turning off the recirculation and using a fresh air supply.
Systems that mix some of the extracted air with fresh air and then return it to the room are completely safe to use, as this increases the amount of fresh air circulating in the room overall. Portable or single room systems are safe to use, as long as a good supply of fresh air is maintained. You need to be confident that your air-conditioning system is working properly so make sure it’s serviced regularly.
Keeping Spaces Warm
One potential downside of increasing the amount of ventilation in a workplace is the effect this can have on the temperature. During the summer months, more fresh air in a building can be pleasant. In the winter, it can make for cold working conditions and a more challenging work environment. One way to address this is through extra heating, but the downsides of this are cost and the impact on your company’s carbon footprint.
Managing this balance between increased ventilation and ensuring an office is warm enough to work in will be a key challenge for many employers over the coming months. While encouraging employees to wrap up and wear extra layers may be one approach in the short-term, other solutions will need to be sought over time.