Should clean air be considered a basic employment right?

August 19, 2021 – 5 Min

If the country is to get back on its economic feet after the COVID-19 pandemic, it needs workers to come back to the office. 

Many people are saying that the future of work will be different, with employees requesting more of a balance between office and home working. Maybe so, but some employers will insist on a certain degree of physical presence. Future growth and prosperity rely on it. As Apple CEO Tim Cook said recently, there are some things video conferencing cannot replicate.

Employees demand clean air

But there is evidence of employee concern, not only from Apple’s workforce. Some worry about health and safety, while others have got used to working remotely, prefer it and even feel more productive. Employers can reasonably argue the benefits of being in the office and make a strong case for the innovation and creativity that arise from people being in the same room. But it’s not so easy to allay fears relating to health.

Employees may want to know what measures are being taken to keep them safe. They may be aware of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) stance on airborne transmission being the biggest risk of infection, rather than contaminated surfaces. That concern will now be heightened by the news that new COVID variants are believed to be 40% more transmissible. 

Attitudes are changing and, just as people expect to have clean water from the tap, so too they expect clean air. More than an expectation, it’s a basic employment right.

Currently, although not legally enforced, guidelines are in place from the WHO and the UK SAGE committee. If there is a gap between existing workplace air quality and the recommended level, the problem is easily rectified by using portable, hospital-grade air purifiers to supplement existing ventilation systems. 

The technology really matters

With an abundance of air purification devices on the market, selection can be a minefield, so the UK SAGE committee has stepped in again with two clear pieces of advice. First, it recommends air purifiers using subtractive technologies, specifically fibrous filtration (HEPA) and germicidal UV (UVC), which are designed to remove and inactivate COVID-19 from indoor air with no side effects. Secondly, it stresses the importance of independent laboratory testing when specifying a suitable air purifying device.

SAGE also notes that additive technologies, which add constituents to the air to remove particles, inactivate microorganisms and/or react with chemical contaminants, have a limited evidence base that demonstrates effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2. Such technologies – including  ionisers, plasma, chemical oxidation, photocatalytic oxidation, and electrostatic precipitation – may also generate undesirable secondary chemical products that could lead to health effects like respiratory or skin irritation. These devices are therefore not recommended unless their safety and efficacy can be unequivocally and scientifically demonstrated by relevant test data.

Government stance emerging

A new report on infection resilient environments has been published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and its partners in the National Engineering Policy Centre. Commissioned by the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, it calls for improved ventilation and air cleaning in public spaces to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and future viruses.  Like SAGE, the report notes that air cleaning using high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters and germicidal ultraviolet light (UVC) can be effective at reducing infection risks in locations where good ventilation is difficult to achieve. It also highlights the need for new regulation and advises users to seek evidence to substantiate manufacturers’ claims.

The UK Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers’ (CIBSE) July 2021 report on air cleaning technologies comes to the same conclusion and cites concurring views from the WHO, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations (REHVA), in addition to SAGE.

Politicians are weighing in

On Sunday July 18 the UK Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show and called on the government to offer grants for offices and schools to install HEPA filtration systems. He quite rightly stated that ‘some of these filtration units are relatively discreet’ and effective precautionary measures to mitigate against the risk of transmitting COVID-19. He also referred to their affordability and suggested that they could easily be put into every school during the summer recess.  

ROI – hard benefits

Portable HEPA air purifiers are indeed a fraction of the cost of integrated HVAC systems and can be installed immediately, with no disruption. They also add value through multi-tasking, not just trapping viruses like COVID-19 but also bacteria, allergens, mould spores and toxic vehicle particles. 

The return on investment stretches beyond the obvious. Energy usage is comparable to a fridge-freezer and the focus on clean air, rather than fresh air, can actually reduce energy bills (as well as the influx of outdoor air pollution). In winter, any intake of outdoor air must be heated but, with effective air cleaning, the intake of fresh, outdoor air can be reduced, thereby saving on ventilation and heating bills. Similarly, in summer, less fresh air means less energy on ventilation and air conditioning.  

ROI – soft benefits

In addition to tangible cost benefits, the less tangible productivity benefits of clean air should  not be underestimated.The following claims are not just soundbites, but come from respected sources:

  • Philips Foundation and the University of Manchester: by sustaining 20% lower air pollution levels in the classroom, the development of a child’s working memory can improve by 6%.  
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: in the USA, poor air quality results in $150 billion of illness-related costs per year. Of that, $93 billion represents lost productivity from headaches, fatigue, and irritation associated with sick building syndrome. 
  • World Green Building Council: after cleaning the indoor air, employers have seen workplace productivity increase by up to 11%
  • Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment: research showed that, with better air quality, cognitive scores were 61% higher across nine functional domains, including crisis response, strategy, and focused activity level.

The CIPD advises companies to consult with employees about their return to the workplace and to discuss proposed new infection control arrangements. With the argument for ongoing remote working building momentum, clean air is one issue that can be easily ticked off, giving employers the confidence to switch WFH to hybrid working, if not a full return to the office.  

With portable air purifiers, employers can acknowledge their workers’ human right to breathe safe air, encourage them to return to the office and get the country’s economy back on its feet.

By Edward Ballsdon, Co-founder and Managing Director, Rensair, as published in Work In Mind.

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