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Now is the time to prepare for winter

13 June 2022

We may be in the height of summer but FMs need to start planning now to ensure their buildings are safe this winter. Antony Law shares advice on why air quality must be a key focus and how data can be used to inform decisions.

WHILE IT may feel strange to be talking about winter in the height of summer, it is essential to be as many steps ahead as possible when it comes to workplace planning.

What sort of occupancy levels can we expect to see? How much do we need to budget for energy costs over the cold season? What meetings and events are being planned in advance that we need to cater for? These are just some of the key questions that workplace managers will be thinking about already.  

Another, and arguably the most important, centres around safety – what can we do now to ensure indoor air quality remains high and that our colleagues are kept safe? 

Managing air quality in the winter

The issue of air quality, quite rightly, is high on every facilities manager’s agenda at the moment. 

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of maintaining well ventilated indoor spaces. Given we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors, maintaining indoor air quality is essential to ensure the transmission of airborne infections is minimised during the winter months.

In simple terms, indoor air pollution is dust, dirt, or gases in the air inside buildings such as your home or workplace – or journey between the two - that could be harmful to breathe in. Poor indoor air quality has not only served as a COVID-19 accelerant but can also be linked to a huge range of illnesses such as lung cancer, asthma, pneumonia, stroke, ischaemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

As we enjoy the warmer summer months, it is easier to keep air quality at safe levels through natural ventilation. However, during autumn and winter, opening windows is far less feasible. 

Facilities managers need to act now in preparation for more challenging times towards the end of the year – chiefly, by getting the systems in place to monitor air quality which will inform strategy and actions.  

Combining science, technology and people 

So, what do these systems look like and how can they help? 

A good air quality monitoring solution will help to breathe confidence in the workplace by providing factual, data-driven and real-time insight to facilities managers – information which enables instant and exact responses. 

This is made possible through combining three key components. The first is science, which is all about gathering data and swab samples from your workplace, and should be the primary driver behind any building hygiene programme. 

Second is technology. Namely, the software to increase / decrease cleaning regimes based on real time data. Smart systems automatically change this within the workflows, meaning cleaning teams simply scan the QR codes and the ‘standard’ or ‘enhanced clean’ will give them guidance of what tasks need to be completed. This will also give live data as to when an area was last cleaned.

The use of QR codes can even be taken a step further. Building occupants can scan the codes and be presented with a different dashboard to when a cleaning operative scans. They can see when an area was cleaned, request a clean and even leave feedback. Some of our operatives have received great feedback, and it provides a real boost to know that their work is being appreciated.

Third, and the key to unlocking the potential of the previous two, are people. Leveraging the scientific and technological tools available to them, workplaces need highly trained operatives to devise strategies to maintain safe levels of indoor air quality. Without the people in place to utilise the data effectively, the maximum benefits of air quality monitoring platforms will not be realised.  

These three pillars underpinned the development our own hygiene and safety programme, PRISM, which was built in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It is a system designed to instil confidence in employees and visitors by removing the fear factor surrounding being in a building and reducing the risk of a localised virus outbreak. Monitoring air quality is one of the many key hygiene components plugged into the platform. 

Focus on the data 

No matter what the makeup or functionality, any air quality monitoring system is only as good as the data being put into it. 

It is important to install accurate air quality sensors. These devices are used to detect contaminants in the air, which include particulates, VOCs and noxious gases that may be harmful to human health. 

There are many types of sensors out there, including low-cost solutions which are gradually improving in terms of the quality of data they collect. Before committing to a specific solution, it is certainly worth doing some thorough background research and obtaining expert advice on what sensor will work best in your workplace. 

Indoor air quality monitoring should also focus on ventilation rates, in other words the introduction and distribution of clean air, which is typically expressed in cubic feet per minute (CFM). 

A simple way of detecting whether ventilation rates are high enough is to install carbon dioxide monitors – people breathe out CO2, so if there is a build-up of CO2 in an area of a workplace it could indicate that ventilation needs improving. 

Typically, the most appropriate portable devices to use in the workplace are non-dispersive infrared (NDIR) CO2 monitors. When deploying and testing them, be sure to place them at head height and keep them away from windows, doors and air supply openings. Also try to keep them at least half a metre away from people to avoid obtaining misleadingly high readings. 

Now is the ideal time to establish where the best places in your workplace are to install these devices. Try out several locations to find the most representative position for the monitor in the space – in larger spaces, more than one sampling location will usually be required. You may also need to move sensors as workplace behaviour changes. A meeting room that is being used a lot now may not be used so much in six months.

Other important tips to obtain accurate measurements include taking several readings over the course of the day to cover different levels of occupancy and workplace use.  Correlating air quality data with occupancy levels in real-time will give vital insights for FM teams to action.

Finally, be sure to record the number of occupants and type of ventilation you are using at any given time alongside your CO2 readings. This data will help you to decide whether an area is poorly ventilated and needs remedial attention.  

It is not just the monitoring of air quality that relies on accurate data, however. 

Surface cleanliness is an equally important consideration. Here, carrying out TVC swabbing can give an auditable bacteria count that generates an understanding of what cleaning regimes are needed to reduce health risks. Our data, for example, which has been taken from more than 5,000 swab analyses, shows that the top five high risk touch points are men’s toilet door handles, lift buttons, sink taps, communal area door handles and fridge handles. 

These insights are invaluable as we can help our clients target the areas that need it the most. In fact, we are in the process of compiling a white paper that will measure the links between air quality and hygiene data using IoT devices.

Act now for a safe winter workplace

As workplaces continue to welcome people back following a prolonged hiatus, never has it been more important to install effective hygiene regimes which are underpinned by data. 

Poor indoor air quality is an invisible but potentially fatal problem, one that contributes to far too many illnesses and premature deaths around the world every year. 

And workers are worried about it too. According to a study conducted in the US at the start of 2022, almost nine in 10 employees agree that the quality of air they breathe has a direct impact on their health and wellbeing, with 98 per cent believing that safe indoor air quality provides at least one health benefit. 

Interestingly, nine out of 10 employees want to be kept informed of their building's air quality, yet only 15 per cent receive regular updates. 

By installing air quality monitoring systems now and in good time ahead of the more hazardous winter months, organisations can reassure their employees that their working environments are safe all year round. 

Antony Law is chief commercial officer at Churchill.

For more information visit https://www.churchillservices.com/

Tel: 0845 345 1576