GMeeting outdoors has provided people with a safer alternative to meeting indoors during the Covid-19 pandemic. But for those who spend their days in crowded indoor spaces – workers in office buildings and industrial plants, students in schools and the like – how can their indoor environment become more like the outside world? With better air quality and ventilation.
However, federal regulations aren’t enough to improve indoor ventilation, and few states are trying to improve it. We examined the US State Policy’s Covid-19 database and found that only Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington have explicit occupational health and safety standards to promote better air and / or ventilation.
The problem goes well beyond preventing the transmission of Covid-19. Minimum indoor air quality requirements could also help reduce the annual spread of influenza, which causes tens of thousands of deaths each year, and improve chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma.
An update of air quality and ventilation standards in the workplace is long overdue. As the country is forming a new normal in the wake of the pandemic, improving occupational safety, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, should be a priority.
Mechanical ventilation systems can bring outside air into buildings or recirculate air, increase the frequency with which the air is changed in a room, or purify the air by passing it through efficient filters. When the outside air is clean, increased ventilation will reduce indoor air pollutants, including particles of all sizes. Because infectious agents such as viruses and bacteria are tiny particles and can float in the air for long periods of time, increased ventilation combined with filter systems that trap pathogens and other particles has the potential to reduce the transmission of infectious diseases through the air.
In workplaces with high rates of Covid-19 transmission, the greatest need is to improve ventilation to support worker health. Long-term care facilities have seen particularly bad outbreaks. Data from California and Washington indicate particularly high rates of Covid-19 cases among workers in restaurant kitchens and food processing plants – more than 90,000 workers in meat packaging and food processing plants tested positive for Covid-19. These industries are relatively low paid, often have poor job quality and have a disproportionately high number of colored workers. Despite the importance of improving indoor air quality, policy makers are not responding to the urgent need for more protection standards.
Initial attempts by states to address health and safety concerns when schools reopened have been inadequate. Guidelines to facilitate return to face-to-face teaching have largely focused on physical barriers and physical distancing. While important, these efforts overlook the importance of airflow as a means of preventing the transmission of aerosol diseases between teachers and students. If this is not corrected in the future, many people will become unnecessarily infected indoors. However, most states have not mandated that buildings be equipped with better ventilation equipment such as high efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA).
Improving indoor air quality is especially important as states are pulling back remaining Covid-19 restrictions. Without face mask regulations and social distancing regulations, cleaner indoor air can help reduce the transmission of infectious diseases and help keep people healthy. This can be achieved: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has already mandated stricter ventilation guidelines for healthcare facilities. This must also be extended to other work settings.
It is in the best interests of both public health and business to introduce stricter indoor air quality regulations for workplaces as the US recovers from the effects of the pandemic, even at the cost of higher energy use. When people can breathe better, they are more efficient. Good ventilation is associated with improved cognitive function, increased productivity, and fewer lost days.
Even without a sufficient OSHA emergency standard to reduce worker exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, states can enact regulations based on the recommendations of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers take on higher air exchange rates and high-quality air filtration at all workplaces. Five states currently have specific standards for air quality and ventilation in the workplace. New York and Oregon recently introduced infectious disease standards for workplaces. Other states should do the same.
The US has missed many opportunities to develop policies to protect key workers from Covid-19 and other respiratory diseases. In the future, these preventable diseases and deaths can be stopped. Our elected officials can invest in workplace infrastructure, especially for low-income workers and black workers, to provide ventilation that improves health and well-being.
Leslie Boden is an economist and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. Will Raderman is a research fellow at Boston University School of Public Health and works on the Covid-19 US State Policy Database. Patricia Fabian is an environmental engineer and associate professor at Boston University School of Public Health.