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Reopening America: Strategies for Safer Buildings

October 22, 2020 | Workplace

Workers are returning to the workplace. While dealing with COVID has put many things on hold, organizations that were previously charging ahead in a robust economic environment are having to pause and redefine workplace safety. Public and private office buildings, academic institutions, healthcare facilities, retail outlets, and even professional sports venues are finding themselves in new territory when it comes to making their spaces safer.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA), a Washington D.C. based professional organization for architects with over 90K members, has embarked on an to explore design strategies to be a public health solution. Their scientifically-based efforts are intended to provide tools and resources for reducing risk when reoccupying the building during the pandemic. Designers, employers, building owners, and public officials will make better-informed decisions to protect workers in public buildings.

The AIA initiative integrates insights based on emerging science, infectious disease transmission data, epidemiological models and research. They are looking at in-building disciplines that will augment this transition back to business-as-usual safer.

  • The reduction of the spread of pathogens
  • Physical distancing accommodations
  • Mental well-being promotion
  • Providing different expectations for operational and functional approaches to solving these problems

AIA Recommendations To Make A Space Safer

One of the first things to consider when making a space safer is that the workplace is more than just the buildings where organizations do work. For many, it is also a place of community. People spend time in close proximity in the workplace. So those charged with providing greater protection for workers may find themselves working against the natural inclinations of the people they are protecting.

The spaces the AIA identifies as presenting the most significant risk for virus spread are divided into three categories: circulation spaces, restrooms, and congregation spaces. In addition to the actual office space a worker inhabits, these are areas where good design can help people maintain safe distancing.

Decision-makers must follow guidelines set by state and local authorities when determining the date for reopening.

Facilities teams must conduct a careful review of facilities and determine how to redesign and clean to lower the risk of exposure.

  • Occupancy levels and office density must conform to the physical distancing guidelines.
  • Staggering the return or presence of workers in the building is one way to address this.
  • The cleaning regimen must not only include surface cleaning but also address the regular changing of HVAC filters.

Safer Buildings & Office Spaces

The amount and quality of time that workers spend on site is a factor that can help facilitators to determine the type of workspace each occupant can reasonably need to remain safe from the spread of COVID.

While receptionists, security guards, and administrative assistants may need robust protection, sales managers only visiting the office occasionally may not. The ones spending the most time interacting with the public have the most risk. AIA recommends using transparent plastic screens to alleviate the potential inhalation of airborne droplets.

Safer Collaborative and Dwell Spaces

A collaborative space is anywhere inhabitants spend extended time, such as a meeting room or breakroom. Person-to-person interaction and surface transmission are the two main factors to address. Strategies to solve these issues are architectural, engineering, or administrative.

  • Shared amenities can be disinfected regularly, including refrigerators and coffee pots.
  • Chairs and tables placed further apart, and break times staggered allow fewer people to inhabit a common area at one time.
  • Touchless entry points, including open doors where appropriate and personal headsets for phones, were among the suggested strategies AIA listed in their study.
  • Video meetings address room density issues to manage occupancy.
  • Operable windows in group settings to allow fresh air into space is yet another idea put forward in this initiative.

The employer and facilities teams are only responsible for the workspace. Those using that space also have a responsibility to protect themselves.

CDC Guidelines for PPE

As of July 9, 2020, CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering as a measure to contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets and help protect others. Employees should not wear a cloth face covering if they have trouble breathing, cannot tolerate wearing it, or can’t remove it without help.

Cloth face coverings are not considered personal protective equipment and may not protect the wearers from exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. However, cloth face coverings may prevent workers, including those who don’t know they have the virus, from spreading it to others.

Even with rigorous guidelines from the CDC, facilities teams may not be able to mandate personal protective equipment in some cases in order to create safer buildings.

Technologies Developed To Detect Possible Outbreaks

Apart from pursuing robust measures to make the work environment safe, what other steps can employers do to ensure the workplace is safe? The CDC advises the appointment of a COVID-19 coordinator or team to work with the health department in cases where contact tracing becomes necessary.

Recently, IoT platforms have come on the market that allow employers to monitor conditions in real-time. Heat-mapping devices are becoming available to help teams determine when associates may need to self-quarantine at home.

Overhead Heat Mapping Platform

Workplace Contract Tracing App

Enlightened, a Siemens Company headquartered in Sunnyvale, CA, has developed what they call an advanced building IoT platform designed to help employees return safely to manufacturing facilities, pharmaceutical labs, business offices, and more. “Safe” provides a contact history for employees that self-report testing positive for COVID-19. Through the use of alpha-numeric badges, Safe tracks movement history. It allows administrators to query the identity of badge-anonymous colleagues in contact with the self-reporting associate. Those exposed to potential infection may also self-identify.

Thermal Security Cameras

Companies like Dahua offer thermal temperature monitoring cameras with vanadium oxide and visible light sensors to provide a highly accurate temperature reading. These are ideal for airports, hospitals, and clinics. They are also suitable for office building settings, where individuals may be discreetly contacted and receive further temperature checks before fully entering a building or boarding a train or plane.

The cameras can be positioned at access points for a building and send elevated-temperature alerts. AI detection capability reduces the incidences of false readings caused by hot beverages and face masks.

While these and other IoT heat-mapping technologies can help limit exposure to non-symptomatic cases early, there are also privacy considerations. According to HIPAA, health privacy rights and personal health data must be kept in the strictest confidentiality.

Ensuring The Workplace Is Optimized For Reopening

Reorganizing buildings to ensure they are safer and that equipment is well-ordered does not need to be costly or time-consuming. Technologies like Gridd® Adaptive Cabling Distribution System makes it possible to implement an adaptable workplace design across campus in a wide variety of settings, including meeting rooms.

The Gridd system allows you to easily integrate tech into your workspace, which is the IT team’s focus. The FreeAxez low profile raised flooring solution features Gridd® Power and Gridd® Mobile, two technologies that make this raised access floor more than a floor. Gridd® is a smart floor.

If your organization is reconfiguring sections of your facility to optimize workplace safety, the advisors at FreeAxez specialize in supporting workplace adaptability. FreeAxez also offers a full range of design services to help the installation of your AIoT infrastructure.

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