Employers hope to breathe easier and limit COVID-19 infections by improving ventilation

While the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Ontario government have released guidance on improving ventilation in workplaces, employers that want to improve air quality have largely had to seek out their own advice.

With little government guidance, companies are taking matters into their own hands

Shawn Stone, president of International Electronic Components Inc. in Toronto, doesn’t know how he and a handful of employees got sick with COVID-19 last spring, but he has since turned his attention to improving the air quality in their workspace. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

Indoor air quality has become a personal matter for Shawn Stone.

His Toronto-based electronics distribution company, International Electronic Components Inc., which serves the health-care sector, was deemed an essential business by the Ontario government in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic.

With a dozen or so employees coming in and out of the office when necessary, he tried to follow government guidelines to protect them from COVID-19 — including everything from masking, temperature checks and hand sanitizer, to installing Plexiglass barriers between cubicles.

Despite the health and safety measures, he and three of his staff members in Toronto came down with COVID-19 last spring. One of them was "really, really ill," Stone said. They have since recovered, but he said an experience like that "can wake you up."

WATCH | Employers hope to limit COVID-19 infections with better ventilation:

The importance of better ventilation in workplaces

2 years ago
Duration 7:50
As more people head back to the office, preventing the spread of COVID-19 means tackling the air everyone shares, and some employers are upgrading their ventilation systems to make the workplaces safer.

Though Stone doesn't know how he got sick, he has since turned his attention to aerosols — tiny respiratory particles that can travel for long distances and linger in the air and are now believed to be a key form of COVID-19 transmission.

"I've learned how airflow works and that COVID is an airborne, aerosol disease, and we need to guard against that, I think, more than anything," he said.

Little information on ventilation

The Public Health Agency of Canada has released an online guide on how to improve air quality in order to help combat COVID-19 transmission, and the Ontario government now recommends "good ventilation" in its online guidance for workplaces. But so far, there hasn't been widespread public health messaging on the subject from either government.

With ventilation infrastructure varying from building to building, companies that are acting on it have largely had to seek out their own advice.

In Stone's case, he received help from a ventilation advocate he met on LinkedIn who connected him with solutions, including the installation of a number of portable HEPA filtration units in his office last month.

Based on what he's learned, Stone has also asked staff to keep a large garage door open at all times in a warehouse attached to the office. In the winter, he plans to have the door opened periodically throughout the day to allow more outdoor air to flow inside. He and his staff will check the air quality using carbon dioxide monitors, which can help indicate whether air is clean.

When it comes to aerosol precautions, Stone said, he wasn't going to wait for the government to spell it out for him. The right thing, he said, "is to create a healthy, safe environment for people to come and work."

Clean air is a critical piece of the pandemic playbook for in-person, indoor workplaces, said Marianne Levitsky, founding president of Workplace Health Without Borders and an industrial hygienist at ECOH Management Inc. in Mississauga, Ont.

Marianne Levitsky, an industrial hygienist at ECOH Management Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., is part of a group of aerosol experts concerned that Canadians aren’t 'paying enough attention to the aerosol nature of the virus.' (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Levitsky is part of a group of aerosol experts, doctors and academics who have come together during the pandemic over a shared concern that Canadians aren't "paying enough attention to the aerosol nature of the virus."

"If you look at the major outbreaks that happened in workplaces, we have to ask why," she said.

Employers were being asked to implement measures such as hand sanitation and physical distancing, she said. "So what was not being implemented? Well, it was probably good ventilation and proper respiratory protection."

Levitsky said that although hand washing and distancing remain important, ventilation "to a great extent, has been the missing piece in this discussion."

'Healthier office spaces have higher air quality'

Like Stone, there are other employers who suspected good air quality was important in fighting the coronavirus, even before COVID-19 was acknowledged by health agencies to be airborne.

At Choice Properties, a Toronto-based real estate investment trust that owns and oversees more than 700 commercial and residential properties in Canada, ventilation has been seen as key to keeping buildings healthy from the early days of the pandemic.

"We definitely didn't have any inside knowledge on how COVID worked or anything else," said Andrew Reial, the firm's senior vice-president of office and industrial.

Andrew Reial is senior vice-president of office and industrial at Choice Properties REIT, which owns and oversees more than 700 commercial and residential properties in Canada. Ventilation has been key to keeping its buildings healthy from the early days of the pandemic. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

"I think if you look at past research and past practices, healthier office spaces have higher air quality. They have a lot more fresh air. And that seemed [to be something] that we should focus on at the start."

Last year, his team came up with a plan to better clean the air inside its buildings, including upgrading to high-grade MERV 13 filters in its ventilation systems and increasing the amount of fresh air exchanges.

"Basically, we're refreshing all the air every 90 minutes or so throughout all the buildings during business hours," Reial said.

Increased ventilation hasn't been the only COVID-19 precaution taken by the company. On-site rapid testing is offered at some of its office buildings, including its headquarters in midtown Toronto.

Signs throughout that office also encourage physical distancing and hand sanitizing, and staff members in the building have been offered high-quality KN95 masks, which are a type of filtering respirator.

As for the air-quality upgrades, Reial said they turned out to be the right call as the science around aerosols becomes clearer. "We were fortunate our building systems could accommodate [the upgrades]. I think that's one benefit that we had."

Adaptability remains key

It's true that not all ventilation systems can so easily be brought up to pandemic standards. Even though the University of Toronto has a number of academics on staff who understand aerosols and COVID-19 transmission, the institution also has a lot of older infrastructure to contend with.

"We have pretty much every type of ventilation system that has ever been built, given the size of our campus," said Ron Saporta, a civil engineer who's the chief operations officer at the university.

The University of Toronto, with a lot of older infrastructure, has 'pretty much every type of ventilation system that has ever been built, given the size of our campus,' says Ron Saporta, the institution's chief operations officer. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Where possible, those same MERV 13 filters used by Choice Properties have been installed at the university, and the volume of fresh air intake has also been increased — especially in high-density spaces such as classrooms, where students are expected to return this fall.

"What we've decided to do is to set up a specific target for ventilation in our classrooms. And what we've done is we've set it at six air-changes per hour," he said.

Saporta said that is "about the ventilation rate you see in hospitals and places like clinics."

In some rooms where meeting those air-quality standards proved more challenging, HEPA filtration units were added. A small amount of trickier spaces just won't be used this year.

Saporta said he recognized this may not be the last time the university has to adjust its COVID-19 policies to align with emerging research. "We think this is the right strategy for what we have now in terms of evidence and science."

Even as vaccination rates continue to rise in Canada, adaptability remains key in the face of a virus that continues to surprise.

Workers at a factory in Mississauga, Ont., wear mandatory masks and gloves. While the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Ontario government have released guidance on improving ventilation in workplaces, widespread public health messaging on the subject has been lacking. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Shawn Stone of International Electronic Components is now fully vaccinated and has offered his staff a $100 bonus for each jab, but he said he's been watching news of a fourth wave, and he's not letting his guard down.

"I think the worst thing for somebody would be to be worried about their well-being going to work every day," he said. "So we're trying to mitigate that as much as we can."