By Ben Jelin, Partner Engineering and Science, Inc.
As we settle into what many people are referring to as the ”new normal,” most commercial and public buildings are sitting vacant while their former occupants shelter in place in their homes. Although the risk to human health is at the forefront of this unprecedented event, other considerations must be made to prevent the spread of the virus and manage risk once your facility is open for business. This pandemic is constantly changing and in order to ensure that you are following the best practices and procedures, it is essential to have an experienced certified environmental health and safety specialist on your team. In addition to COVID-19 virus-related tasks, these specialists can perform other health and safety assessments that may be required as a result of extended building vacancy. Below are some of the questions that we have received from owners and facility managers.
Q: My immediate concern is the presence of COVID-19. How do I know if I have it in my facility?
Currently there is not validated, commercially-available surface test for the COVID-19 virus; however, laboratories are beginning to market virus-specific environmental sample analysis. Interpretation of this COVID-19-specific presence/absence analysis can potentially be disputed, as the sampling process can pick up dead/inactivated viral RNA and produce a misleading positive result even if cleaning and disinfection has been completed in accordance to industry standards. Furthermore, the COVID-19-specific testing does not offer the customary fast turnaround time on samples. The quickest we have observed on this type of analysis would get the client results in 24 hours after the sample reaches the lab, which can be valuable time when trying to reopen a building/facility. In many locations, the samples will be required to be shipped to laboratory which can delay the opening of your business. However, this type of testing is not without merit as it may be useful in determining whether a space/room/building/surface had been exposed at one point in time, and may assist a business in a lost revenue insurance claim. For a timelier assessment of the cleaning of the facility, ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) surface testing can provide real time results. Although it does not provide COVID-19-specific results, it is likely that when used to assess a space that has been cleaned adequately and/or disinfected utilizing a EPA-registered N-List Disinfectant according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, it can give you confidence that your cleaning team has lowered the environmental transmission risk for COVID-19 in your facility.
Q: What if the result of the testing indicates that my cleaning and disinfecting protocol are not sufficient?
If your ATP testing results come back above the established criteria, a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and/or a trained industrial hygiene team member can provide guidance to develop appropriate cleaning protocols, as well as assisting in the contractor selection for future cleaning. A visual cleaning assessment or contractor oversight may also be valuable to evaluate the adherence to any previously established cleaning protocols.
Q: My building is now dormant. Are there other things that I should be concerned with?
It may be wise to take advantage of having a CIH inspect your facility for a variety of underlying issues, such as but not limited to indoor air quality (IAQ), mold, or legionella. These may become more serious concerns as your building remains unoccupied. The operation of heating, cooling, and plumbing systems as part of regular daily functions may be reduced or cease entirely. This change in use may result in conditions in which mold and/or legionella can flourish. Testing for these contaminants while your building is not occupied, and creating plans to correct or prevent such occurrences, may prevent future disruptions in business and further assure your tenants that your building is safe to re-occupy.
Q: How can I be more prepared in the event that something like this happens again?
Owners should have a pandemic preparedness and response plan in place. Since this is an unprecedented event, some companies may have a disaster preparedness and response plans that need to be reviewed for adequacy and to ensure they call for industry best practices. If you do not have any plan in place, a qualified health and safety consultant can provide a templated version or one specific to your business; however, having a plan is not enough. To ensure that employees and staff can adequately respond, we suggest training and conducting table top exercises. If possible, this should be done in coordination with corporate offices and local emergency management agencies. At Partner, we feel so strongly about helping the CRE industry get through this crisis, and preventing the next one, that we are donating health and safety services such as pandemic plans and online training.
As we feel the impact of this pandemic in our personal lives, many of us are also feeling it in our professional lives. For business owners and facility managers, this may be the ideal time to engage certified environmental, health and safety consultants so that you can avoid potential liabilities associated with a potentially unsafe work environment. Sometimes these costs and liabilities can occur just from the perception of a work environment being “unsafe.” That’s why utilizing certified assessors is so crucial, as their certification shows a competence and adherence to a set of ethical principles.
Ben Jelin is senior project manager, industrial hygiene services with Partner Engineering and Science, Inc.
Paul Bubny serves as Senior Content Director for Connect Commercial Real Estate, a role to which he brings 13-plus years’ experience covering the commercial real estate industry and 30-plus years in business-to-business journalism. In this capacity, he oversees daily operations while also reporting on both local/regional markets and national trends, covering individual transactions across all property types, as well as delving into broader subject matter. He produces 15-20 daily news stories per day and works with the Connect team and clients to develop longer-form content, ranging from Q&As to thought-leadership pieces.
Prior to joining Connect, Paul was Managing Editor for both Real Estate Forum and GlobeSt.com at American Lawyer Media, where he oversaw operations at both publications while also producing daily news and feature-length articles. His tenure in B2B publishing stretches back into the print era, and he has served as Editor in Chief on four national trade publications.
Since 1999, Paul has volunteered as the newsletter editor of passenger rail advocacy groups (one national, one local).