How to reduce SARS-CoV-2 exposure risk through improving ventilation

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of members. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 25 February, 2021 - 12:00
Industry news
National News

There are three important steps organisations should address in improving ventilation in indoor workplaces to reduce the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, according to Safe Work Australia.

The most effective ways to minimise the risk of COVID-19 infection in the workplace are to ensure your workers do not attend work if they are unwell, to practice physical distancing, and to maintain good hygiene and environmental cleaning.

Safe Work Australia recently released a fact sheet on the importance of improving ventilation in indoor workplaces and said that all reasonably practicable COVID-19 control measures should be followed in the process, including

1. Ensure the HVAC system is working properly: HVAC systems are an essential safety measure for most buildings. HVAC systems must always be maintained in accordance with the relevant national regulations to ensure ongoing building compliance, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you do not directly control or manage an HVAC unit or system, you will need to liaise with the building owner or facilities manager to ensure the system is regularly inspected and maintained,” the fact sheet said.

“Before you allow your workers to resume work after a period of shutdown, you should confirm with the building owner or facilities manager that the correct start-up procedures and control settings are in place to reduce any risks associated with the HVAC system being restarted.”

2. Take steps to improve ventilation for indoor workplaces: “You should consider adjusting the settings of your HVAC system to help minimise the risk of COVID-19. This includes not recirculating the air or limiting the level of recirculation.

“You can also organise for doors and windows to be opened to increase the intake of fresh air. If you have exhaust fans in restrooms and other facilities, check they are functional and operating continuously and at full capacity when the buildings occupied.”

Exhausts should be directed outdoors and away from windows and air intake systems of your building and that of any surrounding buildings and building owners or facilities managers can assist with checking and adjusting airflow at the workplace.

Fans and portable air cleaners or purifiers are also safe to use in areas with one person. In areas with more than one person, these should only be used where the air is not directly blowing from one person to another and where fresh air is available.

3. Other things you can do. “If you are still concerned about the ventilation in your indoor setting, for example, if you are unable to adjust your air conditioning settings or allow fresh air into your workplace, you should consider limiting the number of people at the workplace, or within certain areas of the workplace.”

Crowded and noisy places have a higher risk of generating and spreading respiratory droplets, and to improve effective ventilation on a per person basis, you should, where possible:

  • look at your workplace floorplan and adjust workstations to maintain physical distancing of at least 1.5 metres between workers
  • stagger your workers’ start, finish and break times
  • relocate work tasks to different areas of the workplace, off-site or support workers to work from home, or
  • provide teams with their own dedicated meal areas or break facilities.