Will COVID's legacy be a healthier workplace?

If there's any silver lining to disasters, it's that they can quickly change rules and behaviors in ways that save many more lives over the long term. It's the same with COVID.

Exit signs and fire extinguishers became mandatory following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. The 1933 Long Beach earthquake triggered an overhaul of building codes for California public schools. Regulations covering the construction and operation of nuclear power plants were fortified after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.

What will the long-term impacts of COVID-19 be on workplace safety?

The people at Poppy, a maker of biosafety intelligence systems, are betting that one will be an increased sensitivity to airborne pathogens and the benefits of a reduction in illnesses caused by poor indoor air quality.

"The pandemic made it clear that the world was unmonitored and untuned for all the possible infections," said Sam Molyneux, Poppy's Co-Founder and Co-CEO. "As we've rolled back masking, screening, testing, ventilation is the last stand to ensuring that infections aren't spreading."

Understanding airflow

Building operators have thrown open windows and doors to prevent the COVID virus's airborne spread. Still, Molyneux said that many are taking a sledgehammer approach to the process.

Improving airflow may actually have little impact on transmission while increasing heating costs and fossil fuel consumption.

Even very cautious companies make mistakes, he said. "We see over-ventilation in a lot in offices that are using ultraviolet irradiation and air purifiers but still have hot spots," he said.

In fact, reducing the amount of outdoor air and channeling it correctly is often the better solution.

That's because viruses don't obey airflow patterns, explains Poppy Co-Founder and Co-CEO Elizabeth Caley. "If it was that simple, then opening windows would make a difference," she says, "but viruses tend to pool in the air in places you wouldn't expect. They can go under doors and around corners. It's incredibly dynamic."

Poppy recommends that building operators employ a combination of purifiers, strategic ventilation, and irradiation to improve air quality, but only after first consulting with HVAC contractors.

"Most people don't know how to implement those changes in an effective way," Molyneux says. "Your HVAC providers are experts on these questions."

Securing the workplace

Physical security giant ADT Inc. has seen customer interest in security cameras take off since Covid heightened the need for greater vigilance in the workplace.

Low-cost, network-enabled smart cameras and improved image recognition software are fueling the trend.

"Small businesses have done a good job securing their storefronts, but now they want their trucks secured as well," says ADT Chief Technology Officer Raya Sevilla.

Businesses are increasingly sensitive to instrumenting every workplace corner for security purposes and to ensure optimal occupant density.

"You can use the cameras to tell if the space is empty or overfull as well as for contact tracing," Sevilla says. "You can also leverage that technology for wellness, such as detecting if somebody fell."

Conscious of privacy concerns, ADT is investing in radar technology that can scan the workplace without identifying individuals. It's also working on technology that senses exceptions, such as an employee failing to swipe a badge at an expected time.

A healthier future?

One of COVID's lasting legacies may be a safer workplace, fewer days lost due to illness, and greater attention by businesses to their people's well-being.

"We've realized that we've been living with a lot of diseases indoors that we weren't aware of," says Poppy's Molyneux. "The ability to control them is entirely within our reach."

Caley cited the example of norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal disorder that kills about 50,000 children worldwide each year (I've had it, and I hope you never do).

Basic precautions like washing hands, food, and surfaces are the best protection, and the awareness COVID created about the importance of such routines could ultimately save thousands of lives and millions of lost workdays.

The experience may even end the machismo-rooted attitude that coming to work while ill is a sign of dedication rather than what it really is: a threat.

Attitudes about such things usually change slowly, but the pandemic has injected some urgency into the process. "What if you didn't get sick? What if you didn't get injured? The benefits come back in spades," Nico Pronk, chief science offer at HealthPartners Inc., told the Harvard School of Public Health.

"You cannot be successful if you don't have healthy workers, but that recognition is still hardly there."

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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