Tech

I’m an air-quality expert who helps companies sanitize their offices before reopening. Here are the most important practices I’m seeing that will save money and actually work.

  • Joseph Heaney is the president of Lotus Biosecurity, which he started last June.
  • He believes footwear sanitizers, cleaning robots, and touchless features will be the new normal.
  • Biosecurity can save companies money, he argues. Here’s his story, as told to Perri Ormont Blumberg.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I’m an air-quality expert who founded Lotus Biosecurity last June to address the needs of businesses affected by the pandemic and help them reopen safely. We’re based in New York City and primarily service the greater NY metro area.

Previously, I worked for the HVAC manufacturer Trane for over five years, primarily working with consulting engineers designing HVAC systems for hospitals and other healthcare facilities. I’m also a WELL AP (Accredited Professional) who helps businesses and buildings earn the WELL Health-Safety seal, which indicates that evidence-based measures have been adopted and third-party verified to improve indoor air and indoor environment quality.

We now have over 40 clients in the New York metro area, and are seeing an increase in client calls as reopening becomes possible for more types of spaces and businesses.

I dedicate a large amount of time to producing informational content on biosecurity (Editor’s note: This term refers to the methods and processes implemented to prevent the spread of infection between humans), as there’s a great deal of misinformation out there that’s led to public confusion. I see a great opportunity to educate the public on the benefits of biosecurity and how it can lead to a healthier population, which will lead to a healthier economy.

When I first founded the company, the consensus was that a return to work would be in the fall of 2020.

As that date approached and infections and hospitalizations rose, the “goalposts” shifted to early 2021, then again to spring 2021, and now we seem to have it slated for late summer/after Labor Day.

As that timeframe approaches, cases remain (relatively) low, and vaccinations become more widespread, it’s worth noting that the need for increased biosecurity and air-quality measures won’t go away.

Employees and customers are still going to feel anxious about catching COVID-19, and many will want protections when traveling through or into indoor spaces.

In fact, a recent Harris Poll found that 61% of office employees “would likely” look for another job if their employer didn’t implement sufficient infection prevention protocols.

For businesses looking at reopening plans, it’s important to know that the majority of these biosecurity measures can’t be implemented overnight.

If I had one piece of advice to give business owners, it would be that proper planning — including assessment and implementation — is vital to ensure that you can select and deploy the right tools for your space to effectively protect your people. The lead time for this can be as far as two months out, so the most forward-thinking and proactive companies are going to be the most prepared and most successful as we approach the new normal.

I worked with the team at The 80th Street Residence, an assisted-living facility on the Upper East Side.

It’s devoted to cognitive-impairment care and residents with dementia, and the facility wanted and needed to be proactive in getting its community back up and running because the people it cares for depend on social interaction.

Plus, there was an extra level of sensitivity around ensuring that staff and outside vendors were able to be “decontaminated” upon entrance to protect the residents.

We put in all new touchless features for toilets, sinks, and soap dispensers in all restrooms, portable air cleaners placed strategically throughout public areas, SteriLockers (Medical Grade UVC Light Sterilizing Locker) at the front entrance for immediate disinfection of items and clothing entering the building, UVC footwear sanitizers, and a UVC cleaning robot that completely disinfects rooms in just minutes.

We knew these things would get its staff safely back to work and its residents back to their lives, but what we didn’t expect was the enthusiasm and excitement that all of these new features would inspire. It’s been really amazing to see the community reawaken, especially after all the tragedy that the senior communities have been through.

Plus, they put videos of the Arc robot (which the residents named Rosie) and SteriLocker on their website, and have basically created a marketing campaign around their platinum certification. It’s great to see a client implement these types of changes for employees, but it’s even more rewarding to see when they recognize the value it brings to the wider community.

Another recent project was when we partnered with the restaurants Jean-Georges and Nougatine at 1 Central Park West prior to them reopening indoor dining last fall and implemented many biosecurity measures, such as UVC lights and enhanced filters in their HVAC system, portable air purifiers throughout the dining room, and touchless fixtures in the restrooms.

Phillipe Vongerichten, Jean-Georges brother who manages the restaurants, shared how happy he was with the measures and that they were making a difference when it came to making both staff and customers feel safe. Many patrons who call to make reservations now ask what’s being done to ensure a safe dining experience and are relieved and encouraged by the many steps taken.

We’re going to start seeing biosecurity become part of normal workplace procedures and discussions, the same way we talk about password protection and cybersecurity.

People are going to be much more aware of the space they inhabit, who they come into contact with, and the tools being used to clean those spaces.

Instead of, “Don’t download unknown attachments,” you’re going to get guidelines that remind you to turn on the UVC robot after each conference-room meeting and please turn on portable air cleaners that serve your area when you get to your desk.

These measures are not only necessary to entice employees who have become accustomed to working from home back into the office, but they’ll also ensure that employees have the peace of mind to perform at their best upon doing so.

The communication part is especially valuable because many of the most effective measures being adopted into the mainstream are often “behind the scenes” where they’re not clearly seen by employees (i.e., HVAC filters).

We’ll also see additional health benefits due to cleaner indoor air and better awareness about how viruses spread. 

How many times have groups of coworkers tried to pinpoint “patient zero” for a bad flu or cold that’s whipped through a department or an office?

With new tech in place to clean the indoor air and policies that empower people to stay home when sick, we’ll likely see fewer asthma attacks, fewer allergy symptoms, and fewer outbreaks of common ailments.

One unexpected change I see coming from the pandemic is some people will take biosecurity into their own hands. The same way someone might have a space heater or fan by their desk, they may now also have an air purifier or a small UVC disinfection unit/locker for their keys or phones nearby.

I think it’s critical for employees to ask questions of their employer and demand that their health and safety is being considered in every office reopening plan. I also think some shared spaces may take a permanent hit — like offices that share a sink or a fridge. People are going to be more thoughtful about how they store items that may come in contact with their nose and mouth.

It’s important to point out there isn’t a one-size-fits all solution for every business

It takes a deep analysis of both the current and desired reopening protocol, as well as the existing building systems, to be able to identify the right biosecurity solution for each facility.

Furthermore, there’s also not a single magic-bullet biosecurity solution that will completely protect your space and employees from pathogens. A recent New York Times article illustrated the idea that effective infection control and biosecurity is similar to many slices of Swiss cheese — the more that are stacked together, the less likely for anything to possibly get through the holes.

Biosecurity is like this: While some measures may be more effective than others — think less/smaller holes — not one is perfect and depends on the others. 

This is a point that the Center for Diseases Control makes in their infection mitigation suggestions and ventilation guidance as well.

While COVID-19 is the immediate concern, implementing biosecurity measures will benefit companies long term. 

A study by the workforce solutions company Circadian states that unscheduled absenteeism, primarily caused by employee illness, costs employers roughly $3,600 per year for hourly workers and $2,660 for salaried employees.

Concurrently, Harvard University published a study titled “The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function,” where researchers linked better indoor environment quality to high cognitive function of test subjects. 

If these results were applied to knowledge workers in the typical NYC office, this would result in roughly $6,500 per employee per year for employers in increased productivity. 

These studies show that healthier indoor spaces lead to a healthier, more productive employee, which in turn directly contributes to the profitability of the company for whom they work.

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