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Germ Warfare

It might not be the happiest of topics, but the Ebola outbreak is no longer just raging in Africa but has spread to Europe and the United States. An extreme example of course, but what can facilities managers do to prevent the spread of bacteria and infections in the workplace, whilst maintaining, or even improving efficiency? FMJ investigates

Of course, egged on by an excitable media (as evidenced by…well, this article) Britain seems to brace itself for pandemics every other year. SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu have all been represented as the greatest threat to humanity since the Black Death. We are constantly warned about the looming dangers of increased resistance to anti-biotics amongst micro-organisms.

Ebola-GrayBut how often are people properly educated about the risks involved, rather than just being whipped up into a mad panic?

What can FMs do to maintina optimum standards of hygiene, prevent staff becoming ill, all the while running an efficient operation as possible?

James Clark, managing director of PHS Direct, says the most important thing is recognising the differences between potential pathogens.

“In the case of the two flu scares, although there have been fatalities, their risk to health remains a bit of an unknown quantity,” he explains.

“These are virus strains that have mutated and transferred from one animal population to humans. In both cases it was difficult to extrapolate the impact through the population.

“However the risk was very high as the transfer of viruses such as these is airborne and so no human to human contact would be necessary for the disease to be spread through the population. You can contract flu by being in a lift where someone has sneezed. Previous trends of new flu strains have spread quickly and had large population penetrations affecting all age groups. That is the risk.”

It is for this reason that hand sanitizers and cleaning wipes were such an important part of a business’ containment strategy for bird and swine flu.

For the same reasons standard face masks would have been completely useless at preventing the transfer as airborne viruses are so small that they will be ingested by breathing through these materials.

In fact at the time, neither flu created the sort of impact on health in the UK that was feared. However, the risk of a really nasty Flu is always present as these viruses continue to mutate (like the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1919, that killed over 50 million people world wide).

“Ebola is fundamentally different,” Clark continues. “The mortality rate is very high for those infected (recent estimates are about 60 per cent) which is alarming. However it is much more difficult to contract the illness as you need to be in direct contact with the body fluids of an already infected person. And that person needs to be showing signs of illness. For this reason it is unlikely that we will have a serious outbreak within the UK and the actions the government is considering this week will further reduce the risks and consider contingency plans if the situation in Europe worsens. This probably won’t stop people from becoming worried and being encouraged to stock up on cleaning products.”

In the case of Ebola, hand sanitizers don’t really help protect you from the disease unless you are cleaning your hands having just come in contact with an ill person. And alcohol hand sanitizers are almost useless. This is because as soon and the alcohol dries (15 secs) you are susceptible to becoming infected again. The ‘No Germs’ product will stay active on your hands for longer. Face masks may be more beneficial in preventing the transfer of liquids from one person to another but they would still have to come from a very sick person.

David Meacock, technical manager at Cistermister, has bucket loads of hints and tips on how using the correct technology and products can keep your water supplies and washrooms safe, as well as economical.

For example rather than simply investing in the standard ball valves for water tanks, an FM would be far better off ensuring that a delayed action valve is in place.

The standard type simply replaces water as it leaves the tank. Use X amount, and X amount automatically enters. But with a delayed action valve the water in the tank needs to drop to a predetermined level before being replenished. This prevents stagnation, algae build-up and is the first step toward foiling legionella outbreaks.

Censors are also available that monitor the temperature and water levels in the tank allowing you take action whenever these variables are not conducive to healthy water storage.

“The more knowledge you have.” Meacock says. “The easier it is to manage your water correctly. For example if you know you are going to encounter a sustained period where the washrooms aren’t used as often as usual. Perhaps the summer holiday at a university? Then it makes sense to drop water levels for the duration of this period. This is cost effective and prevents stagnation and bacterial build up in the water itself.”

iStock_000017616337LargeIn the washrooms themselves many disease combating features are already commonplace. For example hands free taps. These operate using infared sensors to detect when someone is washing their hands. This prevents cross-contamination as patrons don’t actually touch anything, as well as saving water, as taps cannot be left on, and only operate whilst hands are under the sensor.

If washrooms are not going to be used for several hours at a stretch, overnight for example, then hygiene flushes might be appropriate. This is where the pipes are automatically flushed out after a certain period of inactivity, say 12 hours. This prevents stagnation (spotting a theme yet?) and therefore combats bacteria and legionella.

Combining censors and washroom usage leads you to the “censor zone” this a system whereby entering a washroom automatically unlocks all water pipes for fifteen or thirty minutes, before they automatically lock again, provided no-one else has entered the washroom. This prevents water wastage through leaking taps or vandalism.

Neil Weston, technical sales manager at Keraflo is adamant that temperature is the most important factor in preventing outbreaks of illness in any workplace.

“Legionella risk assessments will almost always start with a building’s water tank,” he explains. “It’s that important to keep on top of water storage.”

Warm water provides a breeding ground for bacteria and Legionella, you need to know the temperature of your water, and, just as importantly you need to have the necessary tools available to lower the temperature.

Unfortunately it is almost as if the systems and practices in place have been designed to heat the water up! When buildings are designed and built the architects operate under the assumption that there will be X amount of water available. X is a completely theoretical figure generally based on the maximum potential occupancy of said building. Of course any FM knows that their building is never, ever operating at full capacity.

A particularly pertinent example is sports stadia. Wembley might have been designed to hold the amount of water required by 90,000 people, yet nine days out of ten Wembley is practically empty and even die hard football fans will struggle to remember the last time the national stadium sold out. This is important because, with such huge amounts of water sat idle, it will naturally warm up. Leading us back to the breeding ground.

The solutions, according to Weston is a monitoring system that automatically registers when the water temperature has exceeded safe levels, the water can then automatically be flushed out and replaced with a cooler supply of water.

Similarly almost every building in the country has two water tanks, or at least a tank that is internally divided into two distinct sections. This is a precaution incase one side or tank leaks or needs cleaning, you don’t lose your water entirely.

Unfortunately two tanks means two valves, and Weston explains that it is a practical impossibility to get both valves to open and close at the same time. Over time this means one tank or the other will be favoured and one tank will therefore heat up… you see where this is going.

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