The Pandemic And The New Focus On Indoor Air Quality

As the pandemic enters its next phase, facility leaders are focusing on air quality to optimize their response to viral spread.

Content Sponsored By

ABM EnhancedFacility

By Deborah Hetrick

COVID-19 has crossed the one-year mark. The roller coaster of 2020 seems to be moving toward resolution later this year. In talking to clients around the country, several core tenets are emerging about pandemic response as seen by both facility leaders and the people who will be returning to your buildings throughout the year.

COVID-19 may never go away.

As more people get vaccines, we will get closer to herd immunity, but COVID-19 may linger like the flu or common cold. Annual shots may be common. Preventative measures to manage viral spread may become permanent ways in which people protect themselves and in which facilities help safeguard people in their buildings.pandemic indoor air quality

People are cautious and nervous about returning to offices.

As much as people long to get back to real life and work, that hope is tempered with worry. Federal standards and new OSHA regulations are now being implemented with masks required in federal buildings and on public transportation.

Research¹ from the IFMA Foundation Pandemic Manual, George Mason University and other sources paints a picture of a cautious workforce.

  • Only 21.6% of American workers feel positive about returning to the office
  • 85% report that they feel worried or anxious about catching the virus
  • 75.6% are unclear about what actions they should take to manage the risk, indicating the need for workplaces to communicate the actions that can be taken
  • 25%+ of adults say that they will not take the vaccine, which may limit the country’s ability to reach herd immunity

Facility leaders plan to maintain enhanced disinfection measures.

In a January survey by Facility Executive for ABM, 94% of survey respondents plan to maintain or increase surface disinfection protocols when building occupancy starts to rise above 50%. To manage indoor air quality, 77% plan to continue or add to HVAC solutions to fight COVID-19 in the workplace. With new research showing that COVID-19 spreads through the air, facilities are responding with solutions to improve IAQ and fresh air circulation.

Facilities are taking an integrated approach to manage viral spread, deploying solutions ranging from sanitizing products to building communications, daily disinfection of high-frequency touch points and changes to HVAC systems. Both survey respondents and our clients are expressing a heightened interest in evidence-based testing and data to understand both risk and priorities to help improve safety.

Air quality improvement is a vital step for building health.

Research is now suggesting that COVID-19 droplets may remain in the air and could be a primary source of transmission. In our recent survey and in other research, we are seeing that indoor air quality has become an increasing concern of both facilities teams and people who work in offices.

The CDC reported in October that “these viruses may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.” The CDC also noted that “under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation.” The scientific community is now voicing higher concerns about air quality, especially the need for improved ventilation in schools.

pandemic indoor air qualityA science-based approach provides a benchmark.

Indoor air quality lacks clear, comprehensive standards. The issue is complex because it cuts across multiple systems, decision-makers and engineering teams. The overriding questions relate to determining whether your building has IAQ problems and identifying the severity of the risk. A comprehensive, science-based risk assessment diagnostic provides objective benchmarks to create a strategy aimed at helping safeguard people and facilities from airborne pathogens.

ABM created its Healthy Building Risk Assessment working with our specialists and an independent Expert Advisory Council made up of leading infectious disease experts and industrial hygienists to advise on safety and efficacy to guide evidence-based solutions. A network of industry-leading experts in air testing, air balance and building commissioning along with energy engineers guide holistic solutions that follow the latest regulatory guidance, factoring in the ongoing capacity of each facility’s systems.

Data defines air quality risk.

Indoor air quality risk breaks down into two key parts: severity of hazard and likelihood of incidence.

  • Key factors of likelihood of incidence.
    • Facility industry
    • Facility population density
    • Visitor protocols and traffic
    • HVAC and ventilation evaluations/benchmarks of air mix and air changeover against recommendations.
  • Key factors or severity.
    • Health of occupants, including age and underlying conditions
    • Vaccinations
    • Risk and exposure to new strains of COVID-19

The ABM Risk Assessment uses an 11-question framework to benchmark and identify IAQ challenges to enable facility and engineering teams to make informed decisions, identify best next steps, and provide fact-based evidence for stakeholders and executive teams.

The assessment focuses on three areas:

  • Categorize facility risk exposure. Your facility’s overall risk level is identified as low, medium, high or very high.
  • Identify highest priorities. Your facility’s specific risk level defines the most important and effective strategies to take.
  • Develop targeted solutions based on risk level for maintenance, lighting and HVAC systems. A report of fact-based recommendations helps you form a comprehensive, short- and long-term strategy for reopening and operating more safely.

The assessment provides data to understand risks and prioritize investment. It enables teams to “work the problem” instead of jumping to new technologies that may not be the optimal solution for their building. It also helps leaders develop a scaled approach based on how factors change over time, such as when occupancy density increases.

If solutions are required, the ABM EnhancedFacility™ program leverages these to improve indoor air quality based on what your buildings and occupants need holistically.

pandemic indoor air qualitySteps to take now.

In our recent survey and in talking with clients, we know that the vast majority of facility leaders plan to hold the course or expand their disinfection and indoor air quality programs to help keep people safe this year. They are also working to ensure that they can adequately scale as more people return to their workplaces. In doing this, they are working to define remaining “unknown unknowns” with air quality rising in priority.

Our recommendation: get the data to know where you stand now so you have a benchmark and plans in advance of higher and higher occupancy.

Deborah Hetrick is Senior Vice President for ABM. She can be reached at

¹ IFMA Foundation Pandemic Manual, Wellbeing Lab & George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing (June 2020); IATA (July 2020); Burbio School Opening Tracker (Aug 2020)

Want to read more about how ABM can help get people back to work? Click here.