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Emerging from lockdown - re-occupying commercial buildings

Emerging-from-lockdown Safely re-occupying commercial buildings

As the UK and devolved governments continue to provide a phased exit strategy from Covid-19 lockdown, businesses and institutions must emerge safely and in line with the latest public health advice.

The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) has published a set of guidelines on how we can accomplish this. Here we look at some of the critical challenges that all face as we get the economy running again while avoiding further waves of the COVIS-19 pandemic during the autumn and winter.

Managing building reoccupation

Apart from regular inspections, many commercial buildings have remained unoccupied for several months. Now, to ensure employees' safety, the first task is to undertake a COVID-19 risk assessment. The assessment must be carried out in conjunction with employees and their representatives and also take account of any new measures and working practices designed to reduce the risk of virus transmission. For instance, some tasks which in the past were relatively safe may now carry a higher degree of risk, so it is appropriate to investigate whether this increased risk level could be reduced by changing work practices. 

Building management should undertake a further inspection before employees return to work to implement maintenance requirements and cleaning practices needed to keep the building safe. Cleaning and maintenance staff should be provided with adequate training in revised methods and the use of PPE. Increased supervision of those groups should also be considered. Where multiple workers share the same workspace, enhanced cleaning regimes may be required. The need for additional cleaning also applies to any communal spaces.
Managers also need to decide on who should return to and which work functions will be undertaken. Government guidelines on social distancing must be adhered to, and it is also important to consider employees travel time and ways to avoid peak hours on public transport. Staggered working may be the preferred approach.
Other significant points include providing improved ventilation, especially in circulations spaces and toilets. Monitoring who enters and leaves the building is vital and could consist of temperature testing of staff and visitors. Restrictions on lift occupancy and the use of meeting rooms are also necessary. Response protocols are required should a local outbreak of COVID-19 occur, and these must take on board the latest government advice (see below).

Building services and systems 

All building systems that have statutory and other requirements such as insurance must be updated in terms of maintenance and safety inspections before reoccupation. Some of these include:
  • Water systems – there is an increased risk of legionella due to stagnant water systems. Guidance on this is available from the HSE.
  • Electrical safety checks and gas safety inspections are required.
  • Fire detection systems must be updated and checked, and fire doors and exit routes should be checked for obstructions and emergency lighting systems tested.
  • Ventilation, heating and building management systems should also be checked to ensure compliant operation.
  • Access control and security systems should also be checked for compliance with modified occupancy protocols.
  • Portable appliances are subject to PAT regulations, but the additional risk of contamination also need to be considered. It may be necessary to carry out extra cleaning and sterilisation, especially where multiple users are involved.

Getting help 

Specific guidance on these and other vital issues is, as mentioned, available from CIBSE. You can download them from the following links: 

Safely re-occupying buildings
Ventilation guidance
Recommissioning of lifts and escalators post lockdown
Lift use and occupancy
Further updated advice from the UK government on Remediation and COVID-19: Building Safety update is also available.  Landlords should ensure they seek advice from their retained management surveyors and property consultants.
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