Reducing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace

10/09/2021 09:03 AM
Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

By Prof Sr Dr Hishamuddin Mohd Ali & Dr Shazmin Shareena Ab. Azis

COVID-19 is an illness caused by a novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, formerly called 2019 ncoV. On December 30, 2019, it was first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and on March 11, 2020, WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has rapidly affected day-to-day life and business and disrupted world trade, and movement. Various industries and sectors are affected by the cause of this disease. This virus creates significant knock-on effects on the daily life of citizens, as well as on the global economy.

Despite this hurdle, the economic sector needs to be reopened soon to balance the economy and current health situation. The government has enforced standard operating procedures (SOP) in the workplace to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

According to Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a comprehensive guide on improving ventilation and indoor air quality in commercial and non-commercial buildings is one of the crucial steps in the country’s multi-pronged approach to contain COVID-19 as the nation transitions to the “next normal”.

She said the ventilation policy should be in place before reopening the economy, as states transition to subsequent phases under the National Recovery Plan.

Indoor Environmental Quality

Green measurement such as Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) would ensure long-term social and environmental protection. Indoor Environmental Quality acts as one of the evaluation aspects of green building rating criteria which not only focuses on achieving a healthy environment for occupants but also an environment that promotes the health and productivity of the occupants.

There are seven measurements under Indoor Environmental Quality, namely space management, air quality, thermal comfort, lighting comfort, visual comfort, and verification.

It is said that the COVID-19 virus can spread from an infected person’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles. The airborne virus transmission highly increases when you have people shouting or singing within a confined space.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has acknowledged evidence about in-room transmission being worrisome due to the possibility of indoor airborne transmission, especially for people who spend long periods in poorly ventilated rooms.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that humans are exposed to higher internal levels of contaminants and this might reach more than 100 times greater compared to outside levels.

Besides, close physical distancing is difficult to avoid and could increase the virus transmission risk, especially in the workplace.

Recent studies claim that the important factors to determine the speed of virus transmission are the characteristics of environmental air quality and environmental surfaces infected by the virus.

Important IEQ to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace

The workplace should be designed and aligned with the “new norm” which practises social distancing. Henceforth, workplace size should be bigger and wider. However, this could implicit higher costs for the developer.

Appropriate space arrangement for the workplace is to have a distance of at least 1.5 metre to two metres from one table to another.

Furthermore, light-penetrable internal wall partition is a must for both safety and ease of communication.

From a medical point of view, maximum exposure to ultraviolet light (UVC) during working hours could help in killing the virus as it is sensitive to heat, with inactivation of the virus in five minutes at 70°C.

Air quality is the utmost important IEQ element to curb the spread of COVID-19, which includes ensuring that the workplace has a good combination of natural and mechanical air ventilation; using high-efficiency air filters such as the HEPA air filter; displaying room temperature and having a carbon dioxide monitoring system; and conducting air filtration maintenance frequently.

Furthermore, the acoustic element in the workplace is deliberately essential in this new norm. Buildings must be designed to achieve an ambient internal noise level to avoid having people talking loudly. Talking loudly causes a higher risk of human aerosol and droplet transmission.

Resilience and sustainability

Considering that some 70% of the population of the world would be living in cities by 2050, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has mentioned that resilient cities could absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks by looking into the economic, social and environmental aspects by promoting sustainable development, well-being and inclusive growth.

It could be seen that this COVID-19 pandemic allows for the reshaping of office buildings to be more resilient to sustainability. Even though the pandemic will not last forever, considering IEQ elements for office buildings may make our future built environment more resilient and ready for any disastrous events in the future.

Governments, policy makers, and stakeholders need to come up with necessary steps by focusing on the future building sustainability as many people spend approximately 90% of their daily life inside buildings.

The government should improve the current standard operating procedure (SOP) for the workplace. The current SOP should include essential indoor environmental quality (IEQ) elements to create a resilient SOP guideline that is applicable not only during the COVID-19 pandemic but also in any unprecedented event. Also, the integration of IEQ elements in office buildings allows the buildings to be entitled for the green building certification award.


Prof Sr Dr Hishamuddin Mohd Ali is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and International) at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Skudai.

Dr Shazmin Shareena Ab. Azis is Senior Lecturer, Real Estate, in the Faculty of Built Environment and Surveying (FABU) at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Skudai.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)