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Scott SmithMay 16, 2020

Defending against an invisible enemy: improving safety amidst COVID-19

How do we improve worker, student, patient and passenger safety from the invisible threat of COVID-19?  There are guidelines from the CDC, but how can we transition these guidelines into actions that protect our organizations from the health and safety, legal, and economic implications?  From social distancing to increased cleaning regiments, there are a number of possible solutions that facilities will undertake to mitigate risk.

While we may not have a perfect solution outlined yet, there are interesting ideas circulating and the answer most likely lies in a combination of efforts.

However, any proposed solution will have something crucial in common - the need to track data to measure the impact it has on health and safety.

One idea under that's currently being used in critical spaces like labs and research facilities, is to switch to 100% outside air.  If we reduce the re-circulation of air can we help reduce the spread of viral particles through HVAC systems.  While effective, this method leaves a question of 'how do we take facilities in hot or humid climates and switch them to 100% outside air while maintaining climate control?'  Look at historical data. Modeling and machine learning can be used to predict the impact and capacity to meet this new goal.  This data is also critical to make sure your systems are operating at optimal capacity, meaning reduced faults and unplanned outages.

Another issue comes in current office design. We have built our learning and office spaces with large open floor plans like cubicle farms, which are in direct conflict with social distancing.  Space utilization will need to be reconfigured, and this will have an impact on the performance of engineered systems like HVAC.  Again, data is critical to understanding capacity and predicted performance as we make these operational changes.

Traditionally, facilities have measured air quality at a relatively low threshold, looking just at CO2, and there will need to be a shift to a more modern approach like the RESET Air Standard and include new measures like including PM2.5, TVOC, CO2, temperature, and humidity.  While this standard does not specifically account for virus disbursement, it will give us new data to model and help us understand a level of air quality that may reduce our risk while measuring the impact of changes like using 100% outside air.

Another new idea is to measure temperature, oxygen levels, and physical location of people in relation to others to determine if adequate social distancing is occurring. We see this effort already starting with mobile applications tracking locations, and it was even used in contact tracking at the start of the pandemic.  There are of course technical issues and privacy issues that may need to be addressed, but can we turn an Apple Watch or a Fitbit into a preventative health tool?

Alternative options such as active Lidar systems, thermal imaging and even drones may be used to measure the patterns of behavior and compliance to the guidelines, allowing for increased monitoring.  These new monitoring solutions will also contribute valuable new data that can be used for further modeling and predictive analytics.

The silver lining in all of this is that if COVID-19 is removed as the catalyst for these changes, it's clear that the industry has been leveraging these digital technologies for years. Whether for tracking products through manufacturing, monitoring queues of people for improved staffing and customer service, or optimizing building layouts for optimal comfort and functionality - the technology is there. Now, we are just pivoting years of experience in digital transformation to a new problem.

Scott SmithIndustry Principal for Facilities and Data Centers Scott Smith is the Industry Principal for Facilities and Data Centers at OSIsoft, where he focuses on deriving digital value across Universities, Data Centers, and Manufacturing, Pharmaceutical and U.S. Federal Government facilities. In his current role he collaborates with facility teams to integrate the PI System, which enables a data infrastructure for operational intelligence that provides visibility into their assets, and empowers real-time, data-driven decision making.
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