Campus News

EH&S experts address employee HVAC concerns

Workers repair a HVAC system.

To reduce the risk of COVID-19, the CDC recommends adjusting HVAC systems to increase the supply of fresh air into buildings, extending HVAC run times and upgrading filters where feasible — all steps UB has taken over the past several months.


Published July 28, 2021

Joseph Raab.
“One of the most frequent questions we get is employees asking about ventilation at UB and what are we doing about ventilation. ”
Joseph Raab, director
UB Environment, Health & Safety

Returning to the office after a year away amid the pandemic is not without lingering questions over health and safety.

So, Joseph Raab, UB’s director of Environment, Health and Safety, and Biosafety Officer David Pawlowski have been making the rounds on campus to help address these questions from employees.

“One of the most frequent questions we get is employees asking about ventilation at UB and what are we doing about ventilation,” Raab says.

According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is still a lot that scientists have not determined about COVID-19 and ventilation. However, the CDC states that “while airflow within a particular space may help spread disease among people in that space, there is no definitive evidence to date that viable virus has been transmitted through an HVAC system to result in disease transmission to people in other spaces served by the same system.”

To reduce the risk, the CDC recommends adjusting HVAC systems to increase the supply of fresh air into buildings, extending HVAC run times and upgrading filters where feasible — all steps taken by UB over the past several months.

“Increasing run times and the amount of fresh air is something we have been doing in many buildings on campus,” Raab says. “In some UB buildings, the university did upgrade filters in situations when it did not sacrifice the airflow. However, many of the systems at UB still use the filters that had been the standard prior to the pandemic.

“In many cases, if we would go with a higher-grade filter, we just wouldn’t be able to provide enough airflow or be able to properly condition the air within the building,” he says. “A reduction in airflow would be counter to the CDC recommendations. Also, conditions could be very uncomfortable because the stagnant air would get too hot and humid in the summer or too cold in the winter.”

Raab and Pawlowski point out the CDC recommends a layered approach to avoiding exposure to the virus. UB’s Environment, Health and Safety team is concerned that too much focus on air filtration may be at the expense of the important issue of airflow in a space. Compared to the start of the pandemic, the CDC and industry experts are emphasizing the need for airflow in buildings rather than focusing solely on filtration. In many cases, increasing filtration will decrease airflow.

In addition to ventilation improvements, the layered approach includes physical distancing where practical, wearing face masks, hand hygiene and vaccination. For non-vaccinated people and those on certain immune-compromising drugs, “the most important thing you can do indoors is continue to use the basic precautions that were used throughout the pandemic, especially face coverings,” Raab says.

“We have adjusted the ventilation in accordance with CDC guidelines,” he notes, “but generally, masking is going to be more effective than any changes to the ventilation, where the systems were already effective prior to the pandemic.”

Raab and Pawlowski remind employees with concerns about returning to campus that the vaccination rate across Western New York is high. In fact, over 70% of people in Western New York 18 and older have at least one dose of vaccine. The latest data show that vaccination is the best way to significantly reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, including from the delta variant, and vaccination is very effective in protecting people from severe illness.

Here’s what else Raab has to say on:

CDC recommendations for work: The CDC states that fully vaccinated people can “resume their pre-pandemic activities.”

For the most part, the CDC return-to-work guidance about cleanliness, ventilation and other precautions is guidance for unvaccinated people. So vaccinated people can generally return to the workplace as they did before the pandemic, but unvaccinated people will have to take a few extra precautions, such as wearing face coverings and participating in mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing. UB’s updated return-to-campus health guidelines are posted here.

Workplace surfaces: Midway through the pandemic, the CDC reported that the risk of infection from touching a surface is low. This particular disease, COVID-19, does not spread readily from surfaces the way some other diseases do. The most reliable way to prevent infection from surfaces is to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water. In situations where hand-washing is not readily available, CDC recommends the use of hand sanitizer.

Cleaning vs. disinfecting: The difference between cleaning and disinfection is that cleaning is basically using a product containing soap or detergent to reduce germs on surfaces by removing contaminants and decreasing risk of infection. Disinfecting actually kills remaining germs on the surfaces, further reducing the risk.

As they have throughout the pandemic, UB cleaning staff will augment cleaning with the disinfection of high-touch surfaces. These are things like doorknobs, shared workstations and similar surfaces. The cleaners will still do regular cleaning and disinfecting of restrooms as you would normally expect.

Workplace common areas: Practice good hand hygiene prior to and after using shared workstations and commonly touched objects. Basically, before you touch the copier, you should have a little container of hand sanitizer. Use the hand sanitizer before you touch the controls; grab your copies and then use another round of hand sanitizer afterward.

It’s similar with a kitchenette, except with hand-washing. Wash your hands, get your lunch ready, put your food in the microwave. Then, pop it out of the microwave, get your plate and wash your hands again before you eat.

“I think just those simple things can really reduce the risk of germs on surfaces from multiple users,” Raab says.