Interview with a CIH: Tips for Dealing with COVID-19 From a Certified Industrial Hygienist

Thu Jun 11, 2020 at 12:00 PM

In January, the novel coronavirus first spread to the United States.

The transmission was rapid and as of May 4th, the United States became the nation with the most confirmed active cases and deaths in the world. Confirmed cases are tallying over 1.8 million, and the death toll, now over 100,000, continues to rise daily.[i] 

It has been nearly three months since the first stay-at-home orders were declared, forcing the closure of schools, office buildings, and many businesses. As many states begin lifting social distancing measures, they leave the decision whether or not to open their doors to business and property owners. Owners have also been tasked to implement and enforce safety and cleaning protocols outlined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The latest White House model, put together by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), predicts that with the easing of social distancing protocols and increased contact, the death toll and infection rate will drastically increase.[ii] Whether your doors never closed or are on the verge of re-opening, this will be a critical time to implement cleaning and safety protocols and develop a plan of action in the instance there is an outbreak on your property.

One of EBI Consulting’s Certified Industrial Hygienists (CIH), Peter Hosford, volunteered his time to provide guidance on cleaning and safety measures to prevent transmission of the virus, and steps to develop a coronavirus response plan.


What does Industrial Hygiene mean?

You may be wondering what industrial hygiene is, and what that has to do with non-industrial properties, like offices or apartment buildings. Industrial hygiene, sometimes referred to as occupational health, is the science of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating, and controlling workplace conditions that may cause workers injury or illness.[iii] Having proper ventilation in a hospital, reducing damaging noise in a factory, or training housekeeping on chemical safety are different examples of industrial hygiene.

So how does that relate to the coronavirus outbreak? This coronavirus is a biological hazard to tenants and employees. Industrial Hygienists help you evaluate your property and make recommendations to limit contamination and develop preventative housekeeping and emergency response plans. They can also provide third-party oversight of cleaning methods and perform testing to confirm efficacy.

We will review the proactive steps property managers can take now to prevent the spread of the virus in their building and to prepare for the potential of an outbreak.


Preventative Housekeeping and Disinfection

By being proactive and developing a coronavirus housekeeping plan, you can significantly decrease the risk of a coronavirus outbreak on your property. These preventative measures also allow tenants and visitors to see the efforts you’re taking to keep them safe.

Which surfaces need frequent cleaning?

There are many unknowns with COVID-19, but as scientists learn more about it, best practices evolve to limit its transmission. We know that person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 is much more likely to result in illness than surface-to-person transmission. That’s why social distancing and wearing face coverings are still the first line of defense. However, the virus can remain viable on surfaces for anywhere from 4 hours to 4 days. The chart below outlines the viability of the virus on various surfaces, as determined by the National Institute of Health.

COVID Viability Chart

On cardboard, the virus can survive for a maximum of 24 hours, which allows safe shipping and receiving. Steel and Plastic, like faucets and keyboards, it will survive three days, and on glass, like on cellphones or countertops, it lives the longest at four days.

To reduce transmission of the virus from surface contact, it is recommended to institute an enhanced housekeeping program that includes frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces:

Table of surface types to make sure to clean.

Wherever possible, eliminate high-touch or hard to clean surfaces. Walk through your property and make note of items in highly trafficked common areas. Remove, replace, or have cleaning protocols for those items:

  • Reception
  • Substitute cloth upholstery for plastic or leather
  • Place hand sanitizer stations at door
  • Eliminate the sign-in pen. Instead, provide a box of pens with a note saying visitors can keep it
  • Have receptionist and security sign guests in
  • Do not hand your ID to security; hold it up
  • Clean any tablets used for sign-in between each user, or provide alcohol wipes
  • Issue disposable adhesive “badges”
  • Institute cleaning procedures for reusable badges
  • Replace cloth lanyards with clips that can be cleaned
  • Place hand sanitizer by your sign-in station
  • Kitchen and breakrooms
  • Eliminate any salad bar, soup station, or anything that requires tongs or ladles
  • Eliminate knives for cutting bagels or bread
  • Substitute salt, pepper, and sugar shakers for packets
  • Place hand sanitizer where people can use it before eating (not just at the entrance)
  • Gyms, yoga, and exercise rooms
  • Consider closing these spaces until the threat has passed
  • Pools and hot tubs
  • Consider closing. If not possible, frequently clean chairs and tables
  • Monitor chlorine levels closely
  • Laundry rooms
  • Frequently clean all high-touch areas, such as knobs, dispensers, and door handles, as well as floors
  • Carpets
  • Dry steam clean; this will kill microorganisms without leaving the carpet wet, which could promote mold growth

What cleaning products should I use?

Fortunately, the coronavirus has a lipid covering, making it easier to kill by disinfection. You should review your current cleaning products for their effectiveness against COVID-19 and whenever possible, use EPA registered products approved for COVID-19. The EPA has a searchable database of over 300 products currently approved.

Because they are safe and easy to use, common household products that are ready-to-use, like Clorox or Lysol, are recommended over industrial strength disinfectants. Industrial disinfectants are toxic and corrosive—particularly the concentrates. It’s best to leave these to the professionals who have the training and personal protective equipment (PPE) to use them safely.

Regardless of the product you use, you must let the product sit without wiping it for the recommended contact time to kill viruses and bacteria. For instance, Lysol Disinfecting Wipes state that the surface should remain wet for 4 minutes to fully disinfect. A basic 1:100 bleach solution (5 tablespoons of bleach per gallon) has a 1-minute contact time. If you wipe the product or it dries before the contact time, the surface may not actually be disinfected.

It is also a good idea to replace traditional string mops with disposable microfiber mop heads (such as those sold by Swiffer). String mops spread contamination, so if they have been used, soak in a bleach solution (1 cup per gallon of water) for 2 minutes. Use caution—this is a very strong solution and could create health problems if handled incorrectly.

How should a company handle visitors?

Since transmission of the virus is greatest from person-to-person contact, it is crucial to minimize interactions as much as possible.

At fully operational facilities, you may want to screen visitors and employees by taking their temperatures using infrared thermometers and/or screen with a simple health questionnaire:

  • What is your current health status?
  • Have you been within 6 feet of anyone with symptoms or who has tested positive within the past 24 hours?
  • Have you traveled recently?

Request that visitors bring their own personal protective equipment (safety glasses, hardhats, hearing protection, face covering) or provide inexpensive safety glasses or other PPE visitors can take with them. If hardhats are required and provided for visitors, remove the fabric sweat band after use and institute a cleaning procedure.

Where used, implement a contactless delivery system, and if a signature is required, wear disposable gloves and discard them after use. For those using tablets for signatures, clean between each use.


Professional Cleaning

As stay-at-home orders are lifted, the probability of a coronavirus outbreak on your property will very likely increase. If it happens, what will you do? Your answer should be worked out well in advance; the middle of such a crisis is not the time to begin research and planning.

These steps are not only critical to prevent widespread outbreak, but also to put tenants at ease and assure them you have an emergency plan of action. It will also be critical for you and your tenants to know whether cleaning procedures were effective and if the property is subsequently safe.

What do we do if a tenant or visitor shows signs of illness or tests positive for COVID-19?

If you suspect someone is or has been ill, or if they have tested positive, there are immediate steps to follow established by the CDC, starting by closing off any areas visited by ill persons and opening outside doors and windows to increase air circulation. Don’t begin cleaning or disinfection for 24 hours for the safety of cleaning personnel.

In this situation, it’s recommended to hire a professional cleaning company to perform the disinfection. You don’t want to wait until there is an issue to hire a cleaning contractor. You want to take the time to find a reputable company and have them contracted before they are needed. Look for a known and respected company that performs hazardous waste remediation or cleanup and restoration (i.e. disaster recovery). These companies have the equipment, training, and PPE to use industrial-strength cleaners safely. You should review and approve the cleaning protocols and products (ensuring the proper contact time for each product) to make sure they meet the EPA’s criteria for COVID-19.

What cleaning technologies are available?

There are different options to disinfect for COVID-19 depending on the size and use of the space and the items needing disinfecting.

The simplest, most affordable method is to use a chemical cleaner and, for small spaces, clean every surface and article by hand or, for large spaces or multiple rooms, by cold fogging with electrostatic sprayers. Cold fogging may be faster for large areas, but still requires some extra steps as it leaves a residue on surfaces that may need to be rinsed and wiped after disinfection.

Another method is ultraviolet (UV) lights, called UV Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI). For decades, scientists have known that ultraviolet light can inactivate pathogens like viruses and bacteria. The technology has been used for disinfection in hospitals and is useful for surfaces that cannot be cleaned with a chemical cleaner, like electronics. The type of UV light that will kill coronavirus can damage skin or eyes within seconds and should only be handled by a professional.

What about air cleaning technology?

There are a few technologies proven effective for disinfecting or filtering coronavirus through HVAC systems, including with UV-C or broad-spectrum UV light, hydrogen peroxide, or filters.

With UV lights, the bulb(s) will need periodic cleaning and replacement to remain effective and be set at a high enough strength and intensity to kill the virus. You may also need multiple lights in HVAC unit to get enough exposure time and limit dust that could protect the microorganisms.

Standalone units and in-line HVAC units can use dry hydrogen peroxide generators. This process produces very low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide (5 to 25 ppb)—less than a quarter of the OSHA limit of 1,000 ppb, but enough to kill viruses and bacteria.

HVAC filtration is another option, but you will need multiple high-grade filters to trap the coronavirus since it is so small: 0.12 microns in diameter. A MERV 13 filter will remove up to 75% of particles (using MERV-8 prefilter with MERV-13 filter on central system is recommended for offices spaces by the National Air Filtration Association), MERV 14 to 16 filters between 75% to 95% of particles, and MERV 17 to 20 removes up to 99.97% and higher (and is most commonly used in hospitals).


Third Party Testing and Oversight

The grave consequences of not performing these steps properly should lead property managers to take the extra step to have professional oversight. After an outbreak, and even before, you and your tenants may be wondering how they can rest assured that disinfection was done properly.

Is there a way to verify cleaning was effective?

There are no “cleanliness standards,” and surface tests for COVID-19 are not readily available, although they could be soon. However, it is possible to use a surrogate (like bacteria or mold) to test the effectiveness of any cleaning procedures. There are a few surrogate tests:

  • Cultural Bacteria/Mold Swab
  • Mold Spore Tape Lift, and
  • ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate)

So how does surrogate testing work? We know based on the structure of the coronavirus that it is easy to kill by disinfection, as are bacteria and mold spores. Bacteria and mold spores are found everywhere, on every surface, so by taking samples of the surface before and after cleaning, you can test the effectiveness of the disinfection. If no bacteria or mold is present after cleaning, or the percentage has drastically decreased, you can feel confident the cleaning was effective.

Do you recommend a third party to oversee the cleaning contractor?

There are a lot of options and many steps that should be taken along the way to ensure cleaning procedures are done accurately and effectively. This can be overwhelming and time-intensive, so hiring a third-party environmental health and safety company, such as EBI Consulting, to establish protocols and monitor procedures can be very beneficial.

EBI can assist from the very first steps of implementing a housekeeping program, to hiring a cleaning contractor, to confirming a site is disinfected and safe. Some of these services include:

  • Approving cleaning method and chemicals
  • Monitoring and documenting the cleaning process via photo logs to ensure each room is cleaned properly
  • Ensuring the contractor uses disinfectants in the manner prescribed by the manufacturer
  • Conducting validation testing after the cleaning event
  • Providing a report summarizing the disinfection log, photo journal, and validation testing that can be shared with interested parties such as tenants, landlords, etc.


Key Points

  1. Make your enhanced cleaning program visible. To maximize the likelihood that tenants and visitors follow your protocols—and to ensure their comfort—post clear signage and ensure effective communication of all procedures.
  2. For regular cleaning and disinfection, follow safety protocols: Follow directions, use PPE, purchase ready-to-use products, and do not mix products.
  3. Hire a professional cleaning company to conduct deep cleanings using EPA registered disinfectants and proper PPE.
  4. Consider hiring an environmental health and safety company to approve the cleaning protocols, monitor the project, conduct validation testing, and provide written reports.

EBI Consulting’s team of Certified Industrial Hygienists (CIH), Certified Hazardous Materials Managers (CHMM), Biosafety Experts, and Environmental Health and Safety professionals are experienced in responding to infectious disease and hazardous material conditions across a variety of property types.

EBI works with the nation’s foremost hospitals, laboratories, pharmacies, government agencies, and other mission-critical environments to ensure the health and safety of both staff and business operations. EBI’s environmental health and safety professionals are available to provide custom consultations and best practices that apply to your specific property and needs. During this time of uncertainty, EBI has the expertise you need, from immediate response action and infection control to preparing your building to return to daily operation.

From managing infection control and verifying surface cleanliness to health and safety planning and training, EBI’s EH&S team is your partner for COVID-19 response actions.