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Ready for Reentry?

More facilities are either reopening or preparing to reopen after the initial wave of the SARS-CoV-2 virus diminishes and shelter-in-place orders expire. With several countries, U.S. states, and regions phasing in re-occupancy, facility and security leaders must be aware of the lingering threats of not only COVID-19, but other health and safety threats that may have taken advantage of unoccupied spaces and uncertain times.

Even a week or two without a human presence in office buildings and other worksites could present a sufficiently ripe opportunity for essentially invisible security risks, specifically Legionnaires’ disease and mold, according to the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).

In the association’s report, Recovering from COVID-19 Building Closures, AIHA specialists noted that as organizations attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, occupants’ health can vary greatly between facilities that were properly shuttered and maintained during shelter-in-place orders, and ones that not were not as secure or effectively cleaned while closed.

One of the report’s authors, David Krause, tells Security Management that successful maintenance of facilities during their closures will have three characteristics in common: running the air conditioning systems, checking a facility’s cooling tower, and proper cleaning of the potable water system. All should be done prior to reopening a site, not only to prevent mold growth, but also to curb an outbreak of pathogens that can travel through air or water. Failure to do so might not only prolong a reopening, it could brand a place as a “sick building” and use up valuable resources.

According to the AIHA report, the maintenance of interior environmental conditions, especially regarding humidity, was of crucial importance for any facility that was shut down for prolonged periods in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A typical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system is designed to work in response to the heat generated by people, electronics, and day-to-day activities. But if an entire workforce, or a significant portion of it, evacuates a building and works remotely for even a week or two, an HVAC system’s ability to maintain humidity levels in a building can be compromised. The alteration to normal occupancy makes it possible for mold or damage from moisture to build up.

Cooling towers are how HVAC systems shunt heat from inside a facility to the outside, but they are also a good spot for Legionnaires’ disease and can operate as a breeding ground for other bacteria, Krause cautions.

According to the AIHA report, there has been a 650 percent increase of Legionella bacteria over the past 15 years. In general, stagnant water in a system gradually loses chlorine, which in turn allows for Legionella to set up shop.

Triggered by this waterborne pathogen, Legionnaires’ disease can present as a fever, cough, and shortness of breath—symptoms similar to the ones presented by COVID-19.

Along with potential risks from the cooling tower, potable water systems that are served by municipal water authorities could have also stagnated during this time. But here, the report noted, the duty of care falls on a building’s owners and operators to assess the damage and take either preventative measures or mitigate and fix any existing damage.

Beyond checking with municipal water suppliers on whether they have flushed water mains and used sufficient chlorine, Krause also recommends using a licensed water treatment company to hyper-chlorinate a system because, when cleaning out a dirty system, “normal levels of chlorine simply don’t work.”

Although responsible organizations will doubtlessly work hard to avoid the growth of mold and outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, all this work should occur in tandem with a hyper-awareness for fighting against a resurgence of COVID-19. Just as there are ways to prevent the spread of Legionnaires’ disease, there are also ways to catch future coronavirus outbreaks and stomp them out before they happen.

“The challenge is that you are going to have the possibility of a person getting infected,” says Hamid Arabzadeh, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and a member of AIHA. “Even without this virus, there is no absolute safety for anything.”

While government leaders, associations like the AIHA, and scientific institutions such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will continue to monitor and assess the overall risk of the virus, Arabzadeh adds that organizations and businesses must work in concert with them.

“We believe that safety is a science,” he says. “There are ways to ensure that something is 99 percent safe.”

While people should continue to practice social distancing and other now-familiar measures—handwashing and wearing facial coverings—taken to decrease the likelihood of infection, Arabzadeh notes that organizational hygiene can help, too.

The two most effective measures, he says, are ensuring proper air circulation in a facility and training personnel. In some industries it just is not possible for coworkers to remain six feet apart throughout the workday. Infection, Arabzadeh says, is more likely if people are indoors, in close quarters, and not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE, such as face masks) for periods lasting longer than 15 minutes. In these scenarios, a lack of efficient air circulation guarantees that any airborne pathogens can spread from one person to another.

But effective air circulation only goes so far. Training staff to observe proper practices upon reoccupying a facility is also key, and employers should outline specific guidelines for personnel prior to re-entry.

“For every industry segment, there is a specific training that is needed,” Arabzadeh says. And while these practices can vary depending on the setting and the availability of PPE and cleaning agents, a universal issue is how employers help their personnel deal with maintaining social distancing practices.

Although it may be easy to become frustrated with the new rules, Arabzadeh says that reinforcing training with polite reminders is more effective than anger. In fact, getting upset or accusing staff or coworkers of being a potential source of infection can be counterproductive. Instead, “be courteous when reinforcing or reminding people of training goals,” Arabzadeh says.          

An antagonistic environment is likely to only continue frustrating an already tired and worn workforce, especially when many employees may now see their offices and job sites as a symbol of normalizing times—a refuge from the unpredictability of the coronavirus.

Along with training returning workforces, Krause recommends revisiting a site’s cleaning protocols and ensuring that proper procedures are in place, as well as the use of suitable materials. Facilities commonly use third-party cleaning services, but the burden of care will still fall on a facility’s operator or owner; taking time to know that these contractors are properly trained, understand their health and safety programs, and learn the additional details that go into cleaning a building can mean the difference between keeping a site open or being a new ground zero for another outbreak, he says.

Ultimately, Krause explains that leaders will have to consider whether another outbreak of COVID-19 is likely and plan from there, both on a facility and national level.

“Do we assume this is like lightning and only struck once?” he asks.

While Krause also says that he thinks integrating public health into a safety or security department is inevitable, keeping a future outbreak at bay from any pathogen and making sure that nothing happens can result in a different kind of stagnation. “The longer that you’re successful in preventing an outbreak, the more people ask ‘Why are we doing this?’” he adds.

As part of the AIHA’s Back to Work Safely Initiative, the association offers experts—such as industrial hygienists, infection control professionals, and environmental health specialists—to help create guidelines for industries, business sectors, and even small businesses that may not already have those resources on hand. The association also provides a list of consultants by state and specialty.

Sara Mosqueda is assistant editor at Security Management. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @ximenawrites.