It’s time to treat clean air as an intangible asset

Business Insights

The UK economy is suffering at the hands of Coronavirus. To recover from the protracted lockdown, we must embark upon large-scale reopening of business.

It’s widely accepted that personal contact and face-to-face brainstorming stimulate innovation and change, as well as championing corporate culture. Most companies, therefore, want their staff to come back into the fold, at least on a part time basis, so that their bricks-and-mortar tangible assets can again add value to the bottom line.

Resistance is building

But workers are resisting companies’ attempts to lure them back into the office and, in the USA, it’s even suggested that some employees will quit instead of giving up working from home. That may be a stretch, but for many who do want to come back, albeit with a balance between office and home working, reassurance is critical. Just as people expect pure water from the tap, hygienic food from the shops, and sanitary office facilities, they also now expect clean air at their place of work.

The anxiety is understandable, as the latest advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Health & Safety Executive places far greater emphasis on Covid-19 transmission from inhaled airborne droplets, rather than from touching contaminated surfaces. If companies are to reap value from their office space, clean air needs to be top of the facilities management agenda. 

Simple air quality solution

The pursuit of clean air may give companies a headache, caught between the remit of their own company and that of their property managing agent. Fortunately, there is a simple solution. It is relatively easy to measure air quality and determine if there’s a gap between existing workplace air quality and that recommended by the WHO and UK SAGE Committee.

The WHO recommends that an air purifier should be used to close the gap between the minimum litres per person per second requirement and what any existing ventilation provides. Companies can add portable air purifiers without affecting the fabric of the building. Working in tandem with HVAC systems, these can easily provide the optimum cumulative air change per hour rate.

Technology matters

With many air purifier devices on the market, management may need more guidance. The SAGE committee provides that in its November 2020 report on air cleaning devices to combat SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Two technologies are recommended, fibrous filtration (HEPA) and germicidal UV (UVC), which together trap and destroy Coronavirus. SAGE also stresses the importance of independent laboratory testing to ensure efficacy and avoid any side effects, such as respiratory problems or skin irritation.

Further evidence of the efficacy of HEPA filtration and UVC light is available from trusted sources. The diameter of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been found to range between 50 nm to 140 nm, or 0.05 to 0.14 microns and research by NASA proves that HEPA filters are most efficient at capturing ultrafine particles below 0.3 microns in size, as well as larger particles. The larger sizes are arguably more important as the virus is carried in airborne aerosol droplets, over 10 microns in size, that protect it from evaporation.

Having trapped the virus, it must then be destroyed: a recent study by the Henry Ford Health System shows that UVC light is effective for killing Covid-19 on N95 respirators. Since the threshold for Covid-19 infection is estimated at only 300 virus particles, whereas an inhaled viral infection typically requires 1,950 to 3,000 virus particles, the case for air purification is even stronger.

Added value beyond Covid

Clean air will play a vital role in bringing people back to the office. While it’s hard to put a value on the financial contribution gained from collaboration and innovation, there are studies that demonstrate the benefits of reduced absenteeism, sustained health and increased productivity that directly result from clean air.

In the USA, poor air quality is responsible for $150 billion of illness-related costs per year. Of that, $93 billion represents lost productivity from headaches, fatigue, and irritation associated with sick building syndrome. The World Green Building Council reports that, after cleaning the indoor air, employers have seen workplace productivity increase by up to 11%. Taking it up a level, a Harvard study showed that, with better air quality, cognitive scores were 61% higher across nine functional domains, including crisis response, strategy, and focused activity level.

Clean air is undervalued. While it may not make the balance sheet, it should be part of the employer brand. ‘Goodwill’ has long been acknowledged as an intangible asset, but it’s outward looking. In the current Covid climate, the health & safety of internal stakeholders counts more than ever. Their goodwill and return to the office hinge on it.

By Edward Ballsdon, Managing Director, Rensair