Risk Management, Health Service, Research Safety, and Facilities continue to use a multi-layered approach based on recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), federal and state guidelines, and other current scientific evidence to reduce exposures to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The following are confirmed mitigations according to the CDC to reduce the risks in the workplace:
- Vaccination, a requirement for all faculty, staff, and students in order to be on campus
- Wearing face masks
- Maintaining physical distance
- Practicing proper personal and space hygiene
To aid these efforts, Facilities is maintaining kiosks with face masks and hand sanitizer at building entrances and hand sanitizer stations in other high-traffic areas, such as elevator lobbies and classroom entrances. Additionally, Procurement has personal protective equipment and other supplies that may be ordered as needed.
In addition to these requirements and recommendations, there are other interventions and best practices in the workplace to address issues of increased safety – physical barriers and appropriate ventilation.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), physical barriers may be necessary in some instances, such as in communal work areas where physical distancing is not possible or in certain healthcare settings.
Guidance from experts advises that physical barriers are not necessary when vaccinations, mask wearing, and physical distancing are enforced. Therefore, the provision of physical barriers at Northwestern will be considered as an exception upon review and approval by either the:
- Office of Equity based on an approved accommodation for an:
- Exception to the vaccination mandate or
- Individual’s increased health risk due to exposure to COVID-19.
- Office of Risk Management in cases where the healthcare setting meets identified criteria.
Schools/units are required to fund physical barrier installations within office environments. The use of signs, tape marks, and/or other visual cues to indicate physical distancing is typically appropriate.
In line with federal and state-recommended industry guidance from ASHRAE, Facilities is performing consistent preventative maintenance updates on the University’s ventilation systems, while simultaneously operating those systems as close as possible to their operating specifications. This best ensures proper air filtration, appropriate outdoor air quantities, sufficient ventilation, and specified air flow.
In buildings with HVAC systems, Facilities does not recommend opening windows, as:
- The simultaneous operation HVAC systems while windows are open negatively impacts HVAC systems from operating correctly. A properly functioning HVAC moves air in and out of rooms more efficiently than an open window and creates a safe environment.
- Our building control systems automatically increases the volume of outdoor air when the weather conditions are conducive, which is aligned with CDC’s recommended ventilation tools.
- Opening windows in buildings with HVAC systems can affect the functionality and efficiency of the HVAC system, reducing the air quality, airflow, and comfort of the building.
- Windows left open increases the risk of water infiltration from inclement weather and can cause pipes to freeze in colder months.
In buildings without HVAC systems, measures can be taken to increase outside air and air circulation:
- If there are window air conditioning units, they may be used to increase outside air intake.
- If there are no window air conditioning units, but there are operable windows, windows may be opened while the space is occupied. Careful attention must be given to ensure that open windows are shut in inclement weather to prevent water intrusion from rain or snow or pipes freezing in the colder months.
- If there are no window air conditioning units and windows are not operable, you may submit a service request on Facilities Connect for a window assessment.
In some situations, portable air cleaners (i.e., air purifiers) may be considered. Air cleaners are effective to a degree, but only certain models with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems are considered effective protection against viruses (e.g., SARS-CoV-2); if not used and maintained properly, air cleaners are ineffective at providing protection and provide a false sense of safety. OSHA only recommends considering using air cleaners with HEPA filters in spaces with high occupancy or limited ventilation. In most cases, because of the current preventative maintenance measures being taken, it is highly likely a supplemental air cleaner is not necessary and not recommended. If departments or units want to add portable air cleaners to their office spaces, Risk Management can provide guidance on which models to consider. However, Facilities will not provide or maintain personal air cleaners. Departments/units are responsible for the cost of purchasing, installing, and maintaining any air cleaners added to their office space.
In most instances, the measures Facilities is taking with the University’s ventilation systems, coupled with the above measures taken by the University, are sufficient in protecting community members from SARS-CoV-2.