Clean air in the workplace: When OHS is up in the air

Since COVID-19 changed how we live, maintaining safe and clean air in the workplace will require much more than changing a ventilation filter.

by Ulrike Steiger

Clean air in the workplace is a safety concern that’s rising in importance. Altering how we work, travel, and interact, the COVID-19 pandemic has given the adage “change is in the air” a whole new meaning. The fact that the virus’s transmission is greatly facilitated in enclosed spaces has shone a spotlight on an issue not often a top priority: workplace ventilation. With more and more employees returning to facilities, it will be crucial for employers to factor in ventilation when planning their return.

More than a breath of fresh air: What it means to maintain clean air in the workplace

The need for good indoor air quality in all enclosed workspaces is recognized in most jurisdictions. Many countries have adopted legislation that requires employers to ensure sufficient and suitable ventilation where employers carry out their work. However, unless referring to specific work processes, such as the use and storage of hazardous substances, this legislation is limited to a relatively vague statement about “proper ventilation.” Thus, very often, ventilation-related requirements leave employers on their own to choose between natural or mechanical ventilation (e.g., air-conditioning systems), depending on the type of building and onsite activity.

The clean-air conundrum: Determining optimal indoor ventilation

Even with teleworking a common practice, continued activity onsite, and the imminent return to work, underline the importance of clean air in the workplace. Many government agencies have issued specific guidance documents to direct companies on proper ventilation – most often recommending leveraging windows and air-conditioning equipment.

Common to these guidance documents are recommendations advising employers to:

  • Maintain air-conditioning equipment in good working order;
  • Increase the fresh air intake to the maximum possible;
  • Install particle filters, where air is re-circulated;
  • Open windows fully and frequently, and
  • Avoid desk fans where several employees share a workroom.

Examples of guidance for ventilation and clean air in the workplace

Among the first countries to issue guidance was China. Its May 2020 guidance focuses exclusively on air-conditioning equipment. Like many of the guidance documents subsequently issued by other countries, it emphasizes the importance of properly maintaining such equipment. It also outlines that fresh air intake must be set to a maximum, preventing the re-circulation of potentially virus-laden air.

Meanwhile, guidance issued in European countries, such as Italy, England, Estonia, and Slovenia, most often includes a section on natural ventilation using windows. When following these recommendations, employers must negotiate between enhancing workplace aeration and other important ventilation considerations, such as maintaining a pleasant indoor temperature, avoiding draughts, and saving energy.

The German Labour Ministry’s detailed guidance recommends consequent and intense ventilation of workplaces where more than one employee is present. To do so, the ministry suggests completely opening the space’s windows on a regular basis. (For example, conference rooms should be ventilated at least every 20 minutes.)

Knowing (and meeting) expectations for clean air in the workplace

With more workers come back onsite, employers have the increased responsibility of ensuring that the areas the return to are COVID-safe. That includes clean air in the workplace. As enhanced cleaning and disinfection scheme requirements will continue, enforcement authorities are also likely to look for indoor air quality and ventilation measures.

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