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Dormant buildings at risk of coronavirus 'sickness,' WEF

Published: Updated:

Following months of work-from-home orders imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus, workers are gradually returning to office buildings in various capacities at differing paces around the globe.

But buildings that have sat dormant can develop their own type of sicknesses, the World Economic Forum (WEF) warned.

One primary risk WEF referenced was organisms and chemicals that can build up in pipes from a lack of water flow. Beyond water quality, ventilation and lighting, as well as vertical transportation – e.g. elevators – also must be properly maintained to avoid workers developing sick building syndrome, said Francisco Ramalheira, director of business development and marketing at Enova, a facilities management company that operates in seven countries.

Sick building syndrome, typically associated with office workers, is usually attributed to poor aspects in a working environment, such as bad ventilation.

In terms of getting buildings back into shape, Ramalheira told Al Arabiya English that for buildings with pre-pandemic problems, even if some of the issues are fixed, some will remain, meaning sick building syndrome will remain a potential threat.

“But for those buildings that had no problems prior to lockdown, that means that you could develop a strategy to bring these buildings back to work,” he said. “So it all depends on the type of building we’re talking about and the type of systems we have.”

A new kind of strategy

Given coronavirus is unlikely to go away anytime soon, facilities and building managers will have to develop strategies to deal with the ongoing pandemic.

“It’s not just the disinfection of the workspace, because disinfecting the workspace is going to happen in a certain moment,” he said. “We’ll still have occupants in the space, so there will probably be restrictions and adjustments in terms of space use and measures you have to implement in terms of systems adjustments, so we’re doing that as we speak in the majority of our contracts.”

While monitoring air quality has been a concern for Enova for years, the pandemic has highlighted the need for proper ventilation strategies to improve air flow and implement monitoring systems to remove pollutants in the air.

Beyond air quality, water stagnating in pipes is a potentially serious chemical and microbiological health concern, according to a study published last month by Purdue University in the US.

“It can happen in underused gyms, office buildings, schools, shopping malls and other facilities. These organisms and chemicals can reach unsafe levels when water sits in water pipes for just a few days.” a WEF article on the subject said.

The Purdue study found that there are no long-term studies on the risks and so far only minimal guidance exists for health officials and building owners on how to mitigate these risks as, but health officials, building owners, utilities, and other entities are rapidly developing guidance, the study read.

“Before we rush back into occupying [office] buildings, we need to make sure that systems and occupied space are in a sound condition,” Ramalheira said. “One of the important aspects – it’s not just about reoccupying the building – but it’s also ensuring they’ll remain in proper condition in the long-run.”

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