FM Frequency: Occupant Well-Being

By Charles C. Carpenter, CFM
From the March 2014 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

What impact can the built environment have on the health of your occupants? Plenty, obviously; otherwise there would not be so many regulations or guidelines governing cleaning and maintenance in commercial and institutional facilities. Fortunately, facility managers (fms) can take many measures to improve both the physical and mental well-being of their occupants.

The most important point of emphasis for the health of a facility is sanitation. In considering this topic, looking at facilities with a high volume or turnover of occupants is one place to start. Elementary schools, for instance, are famous for having occupants who are not stalwarts of hygiene. And the best practices of international airports also warrant examination. One might even look at the steps taken (or not taken) by a cruise ship when hundreds of passengers became ill on recent trip (enough to trigger an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control) as well as the measures they took after that same ship had smaller viral outbreaks on their previous two cruises.

Regardless of which specs janitorial providers use, there are times when efforts need to be refocused or reinforced. Going with the schools example, sanitizing door handles between each class period during cold and flu season may a worthwhile tradeoff for not dusting the trophy case. Buying the cleaning crew a set of kneepads might reinforce the need to clean from the eye level of kindergartners. Take a look at the undersize the handrails of staircases and then judge it against another facility to see how well these unseen, but frequently touched, areas are sanitized.

While there is always pressure to conserve costs, withholding hand sanitizer is one cost-cutting measure to avoid. Given the impact of absences on an organization’s productivity (or a school which receives its funding based on attendance), the ROI on sanitizers seems sensible.

Another moving target related to the physical well-being of occupants is a facility’s indoor air quality (IAQ). While this magazine has touched on many IAQ issues, it is a point worth re-emphasizing as changes in weather bring a change in the amount of fresh air brought into a building.

And, there could be other contaminants to monitor while maintaining a healthy facility. Exhaust fans may not be working properly. Mold or pollen counts can spike unexpectedly, meaning a change in strategy for using HVAC economizers or how much carbon dioxide is the lesser of two evils. Construction, whether inside or out, might necessitate more frequent filter changes. Something as simple as which way the wind is blowing can impact your facility, if exhaust fans have not been properly spaced away from HVAC units.

The plant life in a facility can have an impact on both physical and mental health. Plants can have a soothing effect on occupants, improving their attitudes and impressions of the facility. Plants’ absorption of toxins and reduction of carbon dioxide levels is an unseen bonus. But when plants are poorly maintained, it can be depressing. While sick or dying plants may not be a canary-in-a-coalmine, they can be an eyesore, a mental strain, or beg the question of what else is not being properly maintained.

Replacing plants with artificial ones might be seen as a way to reduce costs or maintenance. But, while artificial plants may provide some of the therapeutic benefits of the real deal and save on the budget, they are not without their detractors. Artificial plants are full of chemicals (think of that smell you get from dollar store merchandise). Fake plants may actually elevate the level of formaldehyde that real plants are shown to reduce. If using fake plants, take a page from LEED and allow them to offgas outside the building. Fake plants will also need to be cleaned and sanitized like any other part of a facility.

Many mental stressors go hand in hand with the physical aspects of the building. Like the aforementioned plants, the built environment’s effect on occupants’ mental state should not be discounted. Sound, beyond just acoustics, may be as the easiest way to pair mental and physical well-being. As offices become denser, occupants generate more noise per square foot. While people may not trip OSHA’s decibel meter, they can generate a variety of undesirable sounds.

Absorbing sound is one strategy. Artwork and/or furnishings can be selected for their absorption properties. Ceiling tiles with a higher Noise Reduction Coefficient can be retrofitted (or phased in if you value acoustics over the mismatched aesthetics). Music is another strategy for mitigating sound. If used properly, music can soothe as well as mask.

While there is no magic wand an fm can wave for a healthier facility, make sure the steps taken are aimed at your occupants’ needs. While you may not help everyone, you can hope to make the majority healthier.