Hospitals, schools, and workplaces, need ‘annual building MoT’
Hospitals, schools, and workplaces should be subject to an annual ‘building MoT’ or health check to ensure they are properly ventilated and maintained to protect users from airborne viruses such as COVID-19.
That’s the view of Chartered Engineer, Gary Jones, a twice past-Chair of the Southern Region of the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) Fellow of the Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Estate Management, and Low Carbon Specialist who says simply opening a window, in many cases, ‘will be woefully inadequate at keeping the virus at bay’, and adhering to the Government advice of ‘hands, face, space and fresh air’.
“A building health check would provide the structure and guidance needed to ensure that all equipment, including the ventilation plant, is sized correctly, appropriately operated, and maintained on a regular basis,” he explained. “We regularly test electrics, fire alarms, sprinklers, lifts, water systems, and more, so why not the ventilation?”
His call for an annual building ‘MoT’ follows the recent publication in The Lancet of 10 scientific reasons in support of airborne transmission of COVID (https://tinyurl.com/x7y6btde), which concluded that the public health community ‘should act accordingly and without delay’.
Gray Jones points out that ‘natural ventilation, such as opening a window, may not penetrate deep into an open plan office or meeting rooms, and may only provide fresh air to those seated nearest the window. He elaborated: “This is especially the case where the windows are only located on one side of the room. New mechanical ventilation systems should be providing 100 per cent fresh air, but many older systems re-circulate air, and have the potential to recirculate the virus, rather than introducing fresh air.”
While there is Government guidance on mechanical ventilation of spaces with, for example, a recommended number of air changes per hour in medical rooms stipulated, Gary Jones says the classification of rooms needs to be reviewed, and, as a result, compliance with the guidance is ‘inconsistent’.
He added: “Addressing the need for adequate fresh air ventilation is something we should have been doing long before this pandemic. To encourage the public back, businesses, schools, hospitals, and shops have taken proactive action with regards to ‘Hands, face, space’, with hand sanitiser available, the wearing of face coverings compulsory, and floor marking and signage to encourage social distancing. Little has been done, however, as regards the ‘fresh air’ aspect, and to protect employees, pupils, and the wider public. Anyone responsible for a public building or workplace should consider the risks posed in failing to provide adequate fresh air in their indoor spaces and any possible consequences.
“Unfortunately, he added, viruses like COVID-19 are likely to become a more regular problem, and as people become more educated on airborne transmission, they may start to avoid buildings with inadequate ventilation.”
Gary Jones points out that many hospital buildings are ‘old’, or have suffered under-investment, resulting in outdated or poorly maintained ventilation systems. He said: “Sometimes minor modifications to an existing system can achieve compliance, but more comprehensive updating can become very costly. Simple things can help – for example hospitals putting up signage to remind people to open windows. Cross-fertilisation of ideas between the building professionals and clinical professionals could also be improved.
“As a Fellow of IHEEM,” he continued, “I have been able to work closely with healthcare professionals to hopefully educate and influence them a little. Many working day to day in hospitals are naturally more focused on healthcare and the related outcomes than the general building services engineering, but there is still much work required to increase engagement within the wider healthcare community.”
Gary Jones added: “We should be addressing the problem before the lawyers get involved, and start to look for people to blame if infection is proven to have been caused by poor ventilation in a public space where a solution was available.”