Early case reports and epidemiological studies of groups where SARS-CoV-2 has led to outbreaks of COVID-19 indicates that the primary means of disease transmission is the indoor spread of exhaled droplet aerosols.

Armed with this knowledge, industrial hygiene professionals may limit SARS-CoV-2 transmission using the hierarchy of controls. Engineering controls that can keep infectious aerosols at very low levels indoors offer the greatest promise to protect non-health care workers and other vulnerable populations as we reopen our businesses and workplaces.

Relying upon individuals to maintain social distancing, perform perpetual hand washing, and, when available, wear the lowest form of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the market can only achieve so much in preventing the spread of COVID-19. And because infected people transmitting the disease can be asymptomatic or presymptomatic, it is impractical to “eliminate” all sources of infection. With this in mind, the industrial hygiene profession has long recognized that engineered solutions to reduce exposure to hazardous agents offer much greater protection than PPE or administrative controls in most workplace settings. 

Many employers and the public incorrectly assume that wearing face coverings or a respirator is the only way to reduce their risk of exposure. Invariably this is not the case — the reality is that wearing a respirator properly every day, all day, is uncomfortable and rarely done properly. Engineering controls have historically proven to be more reliable because they are less prone to human error.

Accordingly, while federal and state OSHA plans require employers to ensure workers can use a selected respirator, OSHA also requires employers to consider feasible engineering and administrative options before resorting to their use or that of other PPE. Employers should select off-the-shelf, reliable, and effective engineering controls to reduce the risk of workplace disease spread.

The cost of PPE is also higher than most employers realize. Because OSHA requires medical evaluation, fit testing, and training, respiratory PPE is not a recommended long-term solution to prevent disease transmission outside of health care settings. Respiratory PPE is best used for short-term protection until engineering controls can be implemented. Costs to implement engineered solutions in a workplace can vary, depending upon the size of the facility and number of occupants, including employees and transient customers. Once engineering controls are installed, concerns of shortages and supply interruptions that have plagued PPE supplies are not likely to be an issue.

The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and its volunteer committees of industrial hygienists recommend the use of engineering controls in all indoor workplaces, even those outside of the healthcare industry, to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The broad category of engineering controls that may be effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus includes the following:

  • Physical barriers, enclosures, and guards;
  • Automatic door openers and sensors;
  • Local exhaust ventilation;
  • Enhanced filtration to capture infectious aerosols;
  • Devices that inactivate or “kill” infectious organisms; and
  • Dilution ventilation and increasing outside air delivery.

ES White paper