It is tempting to rely on our eyes to uncover workplace hazards. After all, frayed electrical cords, damaged ladders, and wet floors don’t often escape notice during thorough inspections. But what about hazards we can’t see?
In many metropolitan areas, outdoor air pollution swallows skylines and hinders breathing. Conditions are not necessarily better on the inside. Pollution often registers up to five times higher indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That is a problem when you consider that staff and students spend most of their time in administrative offices, classrooms, cafeterias, and gymnasiums.
Clean air and COVID-19
Scientists have even identified a link between indoor air and COVID-19. The virus can be transmitted through airborne particles, which can hang in the air for extended periods. In spaces without adequate ventilation, these droplets may remain airborne for as long as several hours. This can lead to stagnant clusters of COVID particles, posing significant risks of spreading the virus. Such concentration can be prevented through improved air circulation, which keeps coronavirus droplets from remaining in the same place.
Time to clear the air
Beyond the pandemic, an investment in air quality has the power to improve attendance, extend facility and equipment lifecycles, strengthen community confidence, and protect staff and student health. Ultimately, by harnessing contaminants, you create an environment that fosters productivity and educational excellence. So, how do you get there?
Every organization should implement a written indoor air quality management program that works in concert with its energy management program. Much of the responsibility for carrying out the air quality program falls on school operations staff, but everyone plays a role. Here are five simple things that will go a long way toward controlling pollutants.
Action item 1. Start at the source
Controlling pollution at the source is often the most effective, cost-efficient way to improve indoor air quality. Follow these tips to tackle common pollutants:
- Prohibit buses from idling near the facility.
- Remove trash, chemicals, and other pollutants from air-handling rooms.
- Use non-toxic paint and art supplies.
- Maintain live plants, groom animals regularly, and keep their cages clean.
- Ensure trained staff or vendors clean up hazardous chemical spills promptly and safely.
Action item 2. Maintain HVAC systems
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems do more than keep us comfortable. They also filter and clean indoor air – if you keep them in good condition:
- Implement a preventative maintenance plan that includes regularly scheduled HVAC system inspections.
- Change filters as recommended by the manufacturer, typically once per month.
- Clear vegetation from around outdoor units. It can block airflow that HVAC systems need to do their job effectively.
- Instruct building occupants to avoid blocking air supply and return vents, as well as storing anything in HVAC closets.
- Consider installing an ultraviolet light in your air handler to help control mold, viruses, fungi, bacteria, and even COVID-19.
Action item 3. Provide adequate ventilation
Ventilating, or circulating fresh outdoor air through the facility, dilutes indoor contaminants. Your school operations staff should ensure you comply with ventilation requirements in local building codes. Not only that, but according to the EPA, improved ventilation can reduce the risk of COVID-19 by keeping coronavirus droplets from hanging stagnant in the air. Most facilities combine mechanical ventilation and natural ventilation:
- Remove covers on outdoor air intakes, and clear them of leaves, debris, and other clogs.
- Consider portable exhaust ventilation systems that catch air contaminants at or near the source and remove them.
- Use exhaust fans in cafeterias, bathrooms, and areas with photocopiers.
- Open windows and doors during maintenance activities such as painting, shampooing carpets, stripping and waxing floors, and applying pesticides.
- Conduct pollutant-producing operations outdoors and/or on weekends.
Download this Occupational Safety and Health Administration resource for more tips for improving ventilation during the pandemic.
Action item 4. Control moisture
Texas sees its share of spring storms that dump buckets of rain and wreak havoc on unprepared facilities. Sometimes, water infiltrates more subtly through small leaks in a roof or spills nobody wipes up. Left unchecked, moisture can trigger mold growth, putting your property and your people at risk:
- Stay alert for mold in facilities that have been shuttered during the pandemic.
- Run the air conditioner, even if the facility is unoccupied, and keep indoor humidity levels below 60 percent.
- Eliminate standing water in restrooms, under sinks, and in HVAC and refrigerator drip pans.
- Thoroughly clean wet areas such as showers, kitchens, and natatoriums.
- Dry or remove wet carpet, padding, ceiling tiles, sheet rock, and insulation within 24 hours.
Action item 5. Provide personal protective equipment
Even when indoor air quality is acceptable, some tasks expose employees to pollutants. Follow these tips to tap into the many respirators on the market:
Uncovering root causes
What if you take steps to improve indoor air quality, but employees still report symptoms such as headache, fatigue, and nausea that get better when they leave for the day? Don’t be too quick to chalk it up to bad air. For starters, air sampling can be expensive – and not all that reliable.
Muddying the picture more is the fact that poor lighting, noise, and other environmental factors can also trigger symptoms. You might have to patiently rule out factors until you land on the root causes.
Use your resources
Organizations that need guidance developing a cost-effective plan to improve air quality should download the EPA Tools for Schools Action Kit. The kit includes an indoor air quality coordinator guide, checklists, and fact sheets that help solve most air quality challenges. Fund members can also contact a risk solutions consultant for assistance.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2020. It has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.