Invisible Safety: How What You Can’t See Can Hurt You
COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace have revealed the importance of protecting and maintaining the health and wellness of employees. From social distancing to HVAC upgrades, factories have implemented strict protocols to stop the spread of the COV2 virus.
If you walk into any manufacturing facility in North America, the first thing that you will see are signs related to safety. That’s because factories and assembly plants often have dangerous equipment and machinery, and even a minor lapse can have serious – or even life-threatening – consequences. Employers want to keep their team members safe, and they also know that the legal and financial risks of failing to maintain rigid safety standards can be devastating at a business level. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest threats to safety can’t be seen at all: the air we breathe. Forward-thinking assembly companies need to factor this in when they evaluate their protocols for keeping their employees healthy and safe. And in many cases, existing HVAC systems aren’t up to the task.
There was a lot we didn’t know about the novel coronavirus when it first reached North America in March 2020, but over the last year and a half we have learned a great deal. As it turns out, the risk of disease transmission through surface contact is fairly minimal, as is the likelihood of an outdoor super spreader event – but more than 99% of COVID-19 cases can be traced back to events held in indoor spaces with poor ventilation and filtration. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued so many guidelines on how companies can keep their facilities safe. One of their biggest recommendations is for companies to improve ventilation to reduce the risk of people getting sick.
That’s easier said than done. The best way to improve ventilation is to open windows and circulate fresh air. Unfortunately, many buildings, especially assembly facilities, have self-contained ecosystems to protect the quality of the items that are being put together. After all, letting free-floating particles into a building where microchips or electronic components are being put together is a recipe for disaster. What works during “normal” times to maintain product integrity may actually be harming the workers who are unable to breathe air from the outside.
Despite some misinformation from the early days of the pandemic, HVAC systems are not responsible for the spread of pathogens. That’s the good news. On the other side of the coin, many of these systems don’t circulate enough air to maximize the safety of people inside the facilities that rely on them to maintain appropriate levels of humidity and temperature. Replacing entire heating and ventilation systems is expensive and time-consuming. So what options do operators of assembly facilities have to maintain employee health without jeopardizing their operations?
The answer is supplementary air systems, which actually top the list of CDC recommendations for maintaining the safety of indoor spaces where natural ventilation is impossible. These devices come in many sizes, and can be used to filter air in small facilities as well as buildings with several million square feet of floor space. Regardless of how big a facility is, the principle is the same: air needs to be circulated and properly filtered to remove potentially dangerous microbes from the environment. Existing HVAC systems actually do a pretty good job, but they simply don’t move enough air to be effective, especially in an era defined by an airborne virus that has already killed more than half a million Americans.
Clearly, this is something that needs to be taken seriously by companies in the manufacturing space. But this isn’t just a short term solution. While many people were optimistic that rising vaccination rates and social distancing rules would lead to the end of the coronavirus pandemic this fall, there is still plenty of reason for concern. That’s because in many parts of the country vaccination rates remain very low, and new variants, including Delta, are proving to be much more of a problem than doctors initially anticipated. Despite the many heroic advances in medicine over the last 18 months, the reality seems to be that we will be dealing with the long-tail effect of COVID-19 for years, or even decades, to come.
It has been a century since the last major viral epidemic caused this much damage, but most health experts agree that the next pandemic will happen long before the year 2120. In fact, there is a high probability of a similar event occurring in the next 25 years. With that in mind, operators of assembly facilities not only need to get through the current pandemic, but also prepare for the next one. Maintaining air quality should be at the top of their list as they plan for an uncertain future.
Marshal Sterio is the CEO of Surgically Clean Air Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of portable systems that purify air by supplementing existing HVAC systems. The company’s products are market leaders in dental practices, currently protects over 50,000 dental professionals, and are used by Fortune 500 companies, Major League Baseball clubs, the NBA, the NHL and thousands of other organizations.