Post-Pandemic Workplace Design - Disinfection / Sterilization
Why is it essential?
WHAT IS COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a new disease caused by a novel strain of virus from the Coronavirus family, which has caused diseases previously known as SARS and MERS. Over a short period of time, this disease has evolved from a localized outbreak to a global pandemic. The speed and scale with which it propagates, itâ€™s severity, and itâ€™s severe socio-economic disruptions are defining characters of this pandemic. According to preliminary data from WHO of the infected populace, about 40% experience mild symptoms, 40% moderate symptoms, 15% sever symptoms, and 5% experience critical symptoms.
MODES OF TRANSMISSION
According to the UAE Ministry of Health & Prevention, this respiratory infection spreads through the contaminated droplets from an infected personsâ€™ sneeze or cough being breathed in by another or from people touching their eyes, nose, or mouth after coming into contact with any surface contaminated by these droplets.
LIFESPAN OF THE VIRUS
Data from research published on in The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine state the lifespan of the COVID-19 virus (in room temperature and about 40-65% relative humidity) as follows:
â€¢ Printing & Tissue Paper - Upto 3 hours
â€¢ Copper - Upto 4 hours
â€¢ Cardboard - Upto 1 day
â€¢ Cloth Fabric & Wood - Upto 2 days
â€¢ Paper money & Glass - Upto 4 days
â€¢ Stainless steel & Plastic - Upto 7 days
â€¢ Outer layer of surgical mask - Over 7 days
Further studies discovered a viral envelope, a protective sheath around the COVID-19 virus which promotes itâ€™s survival in higher humidity, moderate to low temperatures, low winds, and solid surfaces. This also means that porous surfaces, low humidity and high temperatures lead to the breakdown of this envelope and thereby render the virus ineffective.
HOW HAS IT AFFECTED THE WORKPLACE?
The high speed and severity of this new disease has or threatens to overwhelm most of the worldâ€™s healthcare systems. As a result, Governments of the world have decided it best to employ stringent physical distancing measures and movement restrictions. Although these lockdowns and curfews help impede the spread of the disease, it has also led the world of business to slow down significantly and along with it, the global economy. With medication and vaccines yet to be developed and seemingly some time away, these physical distancing measures are likely here for some time.
Within the UAE, this means closing down many retail spaces and offices, and having the majority of non-essential employees work from home, or in staggered shifts. Sadly, these restrictions have impacted the ability of many businesses to stay afloat and there is an urgent need to plan for a phased shift away from total lockdown to rejuvenate the slowing economy whilst maintaining low levels of transmission.
ASPECTS OF DESIGN THAT CAN MAKE AN IMPACT ON VIRUS TRANSMISSION
With the onset of the remote working protocols, businesses worldwide have begun to reconsider the necessity to follow densely packed open plan trends that evolved from mimicking big tech Silicon Valley firms with communal work areas intended to promote collaboration. Over the years, companies have tried to pack more into less urban real estate, leaving very little personal working space to employees. Given our experience with the current pandemic, this is all very likely to change in upcoming designs, with emphasis not limited to improving the behavioral trends within the workplace but also in terms of physical changes such as signage promoting observance of personal space and good hygiene, physical barriers, automated access controls with minimal physical touch-buttons, ventilation and air circulation, anti-microbial work surfaces, and easy to sterilize designs. The fourth and final chapter of this four-part blog series will explore the various physical changes geared to disinfection/sterilization efforts that are likely to be seen in post-pandemic office designs.
In addition to the behavioral changes in the future of workplaces, discussed in the first part of this four-part series, we are also likely to see noticeable physical changes in upcoming office designs. Some of these may be seen as retrofits to existing design whereas some may require a complete overhaul. We will now discuss some of the aspects that may find popularity in upcoming office designs including but not limited to the promotion of awareness, detection, containment, and disinfection.
DISINFECTION / STERILIZATION
In addition to the previously mentioned proposed physical changes to offices of the future with efforts to promote awareness, detection, and containment within workplaces, there would also need to be efforts in place to improve disinfection/sanitation processes to reduce transmission potential at workplaces of the future. Through the use of chemical disinfectants and UV light, companies need to consider various methods mentioned as follows to improve efficiency and effectiveness of disinfection processes.
SANITATION STATION / HAND WASH AREAS
Under the broader topic of disinfection practices within the workplace, hand hygiene remains the single most effective method out there. Regular hand washing or rubbing an alcohol-based sanitizing agent mechanically removes pathogens on oneâ€™s hands, significantly reducing the transmission potential. Research recommends washing oneâ€™s hands for 20 seconds or using a sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol to effectively remove the COVID-19 virus after visiting a high risk space or touching any potentially contaminated surface. The benefits of this practice is not limited to the reduction of transmission of Coronavirus but any infectious disease. Regardless, in the event of the current pandemic hand hygiene has developed into a significant area of focus for designing a workplace. Design considerations for future workplaces must include sanitation stations where occupants/employees can regularly sanitize/disinfect their hands. Careful planning must be conducted to identify possible high risk use cases and design must be inclusive of these consideration when designing and planning the sanitation stations. Understandably enough maintaining hand washing stations all over the office will neither be practical or possible. Instead, design must ensure strategic placement of alcohol-based sanitizer dispensers at key, visually distinguishable points throughout the office. Care must be taken to ensure the dispenser remains sterile, perhaps through employment of contactless technology, and also to ensure they are refilled regularly.
ANTI-MICROBIAL SURFACES / EASY-TO-CLEAN SURFACES / CHEMICAL DISINFECTANTS
Contamination occurs when the droplets from an infected sneeze or cough lands on any surface. As discussed earlier, most surfaces have been found to provide a habitable environment to the virus, with some materials found to harbor the virus for over 7 days. Transmission occurs when a person touches this contaminated surface then his/her nose or mouth. This has raised the need to keep surfaces sterile at all times through constant disinfection, especially in areas of high traffic. Although the virus is fairly easy to disinfect using sanitizers comprising ethanol, hydrogen peroxide or sodium hypochlorite, this is not always viable in practice. At the least, development of surface designs and materials more easy to sanitize may find demand in the market. For example, work stations and chairs that are designed for easy and quick disinfection procedures. Perhaps more likely to be in demand are materials designed specifically to self-disinfect themselves of all microbes including viruses. Anti-microbial surface coatings already exist that make use of nanotechnology to pose a resistive environment to all microbes including viruses. Workstations, chairs and other office design elements may have material alternatives coated with this anti-microbial coating which eliminates the need for constant sterilization protocols or at the very least will reduce the need for the same.
Disinfection tunnels placed strategically at entryways are currently gaining popularity as a means to combat the virus. They include spraying disinfectants known to sterilize the coronavirus, onto people as they pass through the tunnel. Although this may seem a surefire way to cleanse entrants top to bottom, including their attire of the virus, it does not guarantee to stop transmission as the tunnel only disinfects externally whereas infected people carry the virus within them.
Increasing numbers of research seem to point to the health risks attached to these disinfection tunnels. Although the chemicals used are safe to use on humans under normal circumstances, regular and frequent spraying in the form of aerosols can cause serious irritation and irreversible damage to oneâ€™s skin, eyes and respiratory organs. That said, if still looking to implement, sufficient care must be taken to prevent daily employees from incurring harm through its use.
UV LIGHT STERILIZATION
The ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum lies between the wavelengths of 10nm to 400nm. Radiation from the sun includes 3-types of UV radiation, UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA radiation which accounts for 95% of the sunâ€™s UV radiation that reaches the earth accounts for the longest wavelengths from about 315 to 400nm and causes skin ageing through wrinkles and sun spots. UVB rays which range from approximately 280 to 315nm is considered most damaging and is linked to severe burns and cancer. UVC rays ranging from around 200 to 280nm is almost completely absorbed by the earthâ€™s atmosphere and never naturally reaches the earthâ€™s surface. Being the most penetrative and shortest ranged of the three they are generated artificially to disinfect surfaces of microbes by destroying their genetic material, and are not generally considered very harmful humans as they are not expected to be able to travel further than the layer of dead skin cells. Within this range, far UVCâ€™s specified to fall within the wavelength range of 207 to 222nm is found to be least damaging to skin and eyes. UVC rays almost never naturally reach the earth surface due to it being effectively blocked out by the atmosphere, and as a result almost no microbes on the earth surface have developed resistance to it.
UVC light is gaining popularity in the fight to sterilize surfaces against viral contamination in cases where chemical disinfectants can either damage the material surface to be sterilized or is not easily accessible to chemical disinfectants. Owing to its promise of high efficiency and low difficulty in disinfecting surfaces coupled with low risk to people, this sterilization method is picking up pace in the spaces of high contamination risk such as hospitals, schools, airports, and other public spaces. Although the technology does prove to have a higher up front cost than its alternatives, the height in demand is likely to push for further research to develop versions of lower cost. One aspect to keep in mind is regardless its popular claim to be safe to humans, long term and close range exposure does pose a risk and the technology must be regarded as such and used with caution and necessary precautions. Furthermore, the use of UVC light does not disregard the need to wipe/dust surfaces altogether as the rays of light cannot penetrate dust or other particles of dirt. The likely use-cases in future office designs are as follows:
1) STERILIZATION PODS FOR KEYBOARDS, PHONES, ETC.
Offices of the future may find good use for sterilization pods that can disinfect daily use equipment that come in close contact with occupants. High risk accessories such as the keyboard and mouse, headphones, mobile phones and telephones, with hard to reach spots may be found to benefit from UV-based sterilization pods that can easily disinfect surfaces of microbes without the use of chemical disinfectants in a matter of minutes.
We expect offices of the future to have most computer accessories to be left in these sterilization pods when not in use, to be collected by employees as they enter the facilities and put back to disinfect for the next employee that needs it.
2) STERILIZATION TOWERS
Sterilization towers are gaining popularity in the hospital industry and other areas of high risk such as airplanes. They are essentially portable light towers that emits high powered UVC light in all directions. This ensures quick and 100% effective sterilization of the room it is used in, without the use of harmful chemicals. Due to the strength of light used, care would need to be taken to ensure the operator is shielded from the harmful effect of these rays. Many variants without the need for manual operators or wired power connections are finding its way into the market now similar in operation to that of the robot vacuum cleaners.
These sterilization towers may find its way into the daily disinfection protocols for office spaces and design may need to take into account a pathway for comfortable movement of the tower through the workplace layout.
3) PERMANENT FIXTURES
Permanent UVC fixtures may also find its way into the future workplace. Areas of high traffic and risk, such as spaces for collaborative work like meeting/conference/brainstorming rooms may benefit from permanent UVC fixtures built-in to the space. Precautionary systems would need to be in place to ensure these disinfection protocols donâ€™t run in the presence of individuals. Well planned and calculative design would ensue running these lights for a few minutes prior to and after meetings to ensure complete disinfection of all biological contaminants within the space. With the smart technologies of today, meeting room booking systems can ensure complete automation to perform this UV disinfection procedure without flaw.
Scaled-up, with a large enough budget, automated permanent fixtures can be placed alongside the daily use lighting in all areas of the office to be programmed to run post-office closing, during break-times, or pre-opening times to ensure total biological disinfection when the space is known to be unoccupied. Permanent UVC fixtures may also find increased demand for use in HVAC equipment to ensure the disinfection of biological contaminants in the air flowing through them.
HOW TO OVERCOME THE CURRENT CRISIS?
With the current global numbers standing at over 5 million infected individuals and over three hundred thousand global deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic in just over 5 months, this is a crisis unlike any recent turmoil from recent history, we have faced as a planet. Lockdowns and strict restrictions although essential to curb the exponential spread of this disease, have crippled the global economy. Furthermore, with an effective treatment or vaccine months away from practical use, we must slowly look to formulate an effective guideline to reopen facilities. Well defined precautionary guidelines with all the essential aspects addressed is necessary to repair and rebuild the economy.
The above mentioned guidelines attempt to address aspects of office design that may see emergence in the future. When attempting to reopen or fit-out new office spaces, one must consider all the aspects discussed to ensure the office design attempts maximum reduction of transmission risk within the workplace.
ARE THESE MEASURES TEMPORARY / PERMANENT?
The current crisis has not only effectively brought our economy to a standstill, it has also revealed the weak points within our societal systems. Similarly, not only has the lockdown shut down workplaces, they have also revealed a need to rethink the design norms that exist within the current office. Some of the above discussed aspects are changes that can be seen to make an impact to long term office designs whereas some only have a short lifespans till the dangers of this crisis wear out. This means that certain aspects such as privacy screens and cubicle designs may be short-lived whereas more passive aspects of design that pose less economic strain in the long run to improve indoor air quality, improved hygiene standards/awareness, and anti-microbial surfaces may have more lasting impacts to the offices of the future.
Do you have trouble determining the appropriate design considerations to keep in mind when creating your ideal workplace in the post-COVID environment?