gathering outdoors has provided people with a safer alternative to meeting indoors during the Covid-19 pandemic. But for those who spend their days in crowded indoor spaces – workers in office buildings and industrial plants, students in schools, etc. – how to make their interior environments more similar to those of the exterior? With better air quality and better ventilation.
Yet federal regulations are insufficient to improve indoor ventilation, and few states are working to improve it. We reviewed the U.S. State Covid-19 Policy Database and found that only Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington have explicit occupational safety and health standards to promote better air quality and / or ventilation.
The problem goes far beyond preventing the transmission of Covid-19. Minimum indoor air quality requirements could also help reduce the annual spread of influenza, which causes tens of thousands of deaths each year, and help improve chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma.
Air quality and ventilation standards at work are long overdue for an update. As the country shapes a new normal in the wake of the pandemic, improving occupational safety and health should be a priority, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
Mechanical ventilation systems can bring outside air into buildings or recirculate the air, increasing the frequency with which the air in a room is replaced or purifying the air by passing it through efficient filters. If the outside air is clean, increased ventilation decreases indoor air pollutants, including particles of all sizes. Since infectious agents such as viruses and bacteria are tiny particles and can stay airborne for long periods of time, increased ventilation coupled with filtration systems that trap pathogens and other particles has the potential to reduce airborne transmission infectious diseases.
Workplaces with high rates of Covid-19 transmission face the greatest need for improved ventilation to support worker health. Long-term care facilities have experienced especially bad epidemics. Data California and Washington indicate particularly high rates of Covid-19 cases among workers in restaurant kitchens and food manufacturing factories – more than 90,000 workers in meat packing and food processing plants have tested positive for Covid-19. These industries are relatively low-paid, often with poor workplace quality, and have a disproportionate large number of colored workers. Despite the importance of improving indoor air quality, policymakers are failing to act on the urgent need for more protective standards.
Initial attempts by states to address occupational health and safety concerns when schools reopened were inadequate. Guidelines for facilitating the return to in-person schooling have largely focused on physical barriers and physical distancing. While important, these efforts overlooked the importance of air circulation as a means of preventing aerosol disease transmission among teachers and students. If this is not corrected in the future, many people will be unnecessarily infected in indoor work spaces. Yet most states have not required buildings to have better ventilation devices, such as high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.
Improving indoor air quality is particularly important as states roll back remaining Covid-19 restrictions. Without face mask warrants and social distancing requirements in place, cleaner indoor air can help reduce the transmission of infectious diseases and keep people healthy. This can be accomplished: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has already imposed stricter ventilation guidelines for healthcare facilities. This must also be extended to other working environments.
It is in the interests of both public health and business Implement tougher indoor air quality regulations in workplaces as the United States recovers from the effects of the pandemic, even at the cost of higher energy use. When people can breathe better, they work better. Good ventilation is associated with improved cognitive function, increases productivity, and fewer missed working days.
Even without sufficient emergency standard of OSHA to reduce worker exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, states can pass regulations that adopt recommendations of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers to demand higher air change rates and high quality air filtration in all workplaces. Five states currently have specific workplace air quality and ventilation standards. New York State and Oregon recently implemented infectious disease standards for workplaces. Other states should do the same.
The United States has missed many opportunities to develop policies to protect essential workers from Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses. In the future, these preventable illnesses and deaths can be stopped. Our elected officials can invest in the workplace Infrastructure, especially for low-income workers and workers of color, to provide ventilation that improves health and well-being.
Leslie Boden is an economist and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. Will Raderman is a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health and works on the Covid-19 US State Policy database. Patricia Fabian is an environmental engineer and associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.