Healthy Buildings, COVID-19, and Factors Impacting A Return To The Workplace
May 14, 2020

The need to make workspaces safe is a significant topic for employers and employees, as well as property owners and managers. Organizations are under pressure from their employees and tenants, with many asking, “What are you doing to make sure it’s safe for me to return to the workplace?” There may also be legislative requirements regarding workplace safety, a need to protect the company from liability through demonstrating due diligence, and reporting requirements dictating the documentation of what has been done to manage potential risks.

Of course, companies want to do the right thing for employees, but do they know what that is?

Let’s start with the fact that many discussions regarding the reopening of workplaces after COVID-19 overlook one important aspect; the risks related to building re-occupancy should be seen as part of the overall health of a building, and how that relates to employees’ wellbeing including, but not limited to, preventing the spread of diseases.

While some workplaces, deemed essential, never shut down in response to COVID-19, others operated with a skeleton staff only. But many workplaces have sat, essentially unoccupied and idle, for weeks – and this means potential hazards may have been introduced that must be understood and managed prior to re-occupancy.

Understanding your building’s risk

The first step is to understand the risks your specific building faces. For example, determine if there are uses that may result in vulnerable people entering the building – such as medical facilities, including doctors’ offices. Buildings in warm, humid climates have a higher chance of mold buildup in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and pathogens in the water.

Existing research has mixed findings relating to whether HVAC system are or are not a potential transmission route for COVID-19. However, past virus outbreaks have been transported through ventilation systems, therefore, proactive measures related to the operation of HVAC systems in buildings are recommended, such as minimizing recirculation of air, increasing filtration efficiency, and running systems for longer periods of time.

For a building that has been shut down for several weeks, the concern is more around providing dehumidification, particularly in hot and humid climates, resulting in potential condensation and mold problems. It’s the same with the water supply – water that has sat stagnant in pipes and tanks for several weeks can provide ideal conditions for amplification of water-borne pathogens like Legionella and in some situations, a buildup of lead in the water. Although the focus right now may be on COVID-19 management, these other health risks may need to be addressed.

Following standards and best practices from government health agencies , as well as professional institutions such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), can go a long way in managing liability and providing reassurance to stakeholders.

Demonstrating due diligence

Assessing risks means understanding what has been done to keep the building maintained during the hiatus. It could be that the maintenance staff have been diligently clearing and disinfecting high touch surfaces, maintaining the HVAC system, changing filters as needed, ensuring drains have not dried out, and flushing water lines. In such a case, the building may be mostly ready to re-open.

However, it is still important to document what has been done during the downtime, by carefully reviewing maintenance logs, inspection reports, and interviews with building maintenance staff. This will help demonstrate due diligence and address potential employee concerns.

Working alongside the building maintenance team, a third-party professional firm can also add value by delivering specialized expertise and experience in getting buildings employee ready. Involving an independent team of professionals can help reassure stakeholders, including employees, that the work is being done thoroughly.

Research regarding COVID-19 is fast-changing, with new information on how the disease is spread coming almost every day, so it is not possible to deal with every contingency. That said, it is possible to demonstrate due diligence by documenting what was done to manage the risks according to what is current best practice and staying up to date with the latest developments.

Readying the building – and your employees

A work plan for re-occupancy has two phases: one for work done prior to re-occupancy, and the second to cover new procedures that will be followed after opening.

In working with clients during a re-occupancy phase, we often find that the existing HVAC and water management systems are already fully able to meet the needs of a safe workspace, particularly if they have been operated according to current best practices. Sometimes, there is a need for steps to ensure that mechanical systems are operated at an increased capacity or efficiency due to these unusual times.  This may increase operation costs, although this is usually quite manageable and a solid investment for the organization.

The re-occupancy phase should also include extensive communication with employees and other stakeholders, such as organized labor representatives, about steps being taken to safeguard people using the building. This should include reports on what was done during the reduced occupancy period, the results of audits, any areas that needed work and the steps that were taken, and any extra precautions put in place, such as increased cleaning/disinfection and filtration.

Communicating readiness

Communication needs to include descriptions of new cleaning protocols, and other procedures the company plans to follow, including social distancing, limiting the number of people in a room or in an elevator, and closing of common spaces such as food courts, employee lounges and lunchrooms.

This information needs to be provided in a transparent way – providing full details to those who want them, and summaries for those who prefer to know just the highlights. Companies can leverage the role of a third-party building sciences firm, making reports available, and summarizing interviews with the building’s operational staff describing the work carried out to prepare the building for re-occupancy.

Communication needs to be two-way, with employees assured of anonymity if they raise concerns about workplace safety. Employees – and their families – need to be reassured that their leaders understand the potential risks, have taken proper precautions before re-occupancy, and have instituted procedures that will maintain a healthy building and, in turn, contribute to a healthy .

Andreas Wagner Member Name

Environment Health and Safety Practice Area Leader and Principal

Dave Ayriss Member Name

Senior Occupational Hygienist and Associate

Jason McGonigle Member Name

EHS Senior Practice Leader and Principal

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Andreas Wagner is a Principal and Practice Leader for Industrial Hygiene services for Golder Associates.  Mr. Wagner is responsible for the oversight of occupational health, safety and industrial hygiene services and the support of existing Golder resources in these and related fields across the US, in North America, and globally.  He has over 30 years of consulting experience that includes expert witness testimony, hazardous materials control and abatement, microbial assessments and remediation, Legionella and infection control risk assessments, indoor air quality and odor evaluations, vapor intrusion studies, occupational hygiene compliance/management risk assessments and audits, and training.

Dave Ayriss is an Associate Partner for Golder Associates. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and a Canadian Registered Safety Professional with over twenty two years of experience in the Occupational Health, Hygiene and Safety fields.  Dave’s educational background includes a Bachelor of Science degree in biological sciences from the University of Alberta.  He has provided guidance to a variety of clients in the oil and gas, construction, railway, educational and manufacturing industries throughout Canada.  Dave’s areas of expertise include the assessment of chemical, physical and biological hazards within the workplace; welding fume exposure assessments; indoor air quality; soil vapour intrusion, noise; lighting; ventilation assessments; and the design and management of asbestos, mould, mercury and lead remediation projects.

Jason McGonigle, CRSP, CHSC, B.Tech., Dipl., is a Principal partner and senior EHS practice leader with over 20 years of environmental, health and safety, training and consulting experience.  Jason’s focus is managing and directing health & safety, hazardous material and industrial hygiene activities for a variety of clients for Golder.  Jason has a wide array of technical skills routinely drawn upon to lead and mentor professional EH&S consultants specializing in sophisticated and complex EH&S, IH, and hazardous materials projects for a variety of power, real-estate, healthcare, municipalities, real estate, and manufacturing clients.  His professional experience includes health and safety monitoring on construction projects, hazardous materials & designated substance surveys; decommissioning projects; the design and management of asbestos abatement projects; microbial identification & control; airborne contaminant issues; hazardous materials specification development & implementation; indoor air quality investigations; health safety, Site monitoring for environmental contaminants, environmental and hazardous materials policy development, and workplace training.  Throughout his professional consulting career he has designed and implemented a series of client specific environmental, health and safety training programs for a variety of local, regional and national clients.  Each program designed, in conjunction with the client to meet stated learning objectives and expectations.