Working in Critical Environments

Challenges & Opportunities

In the months since China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to a mysterious viral pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan – densely-populated with over 11 million inhabitants – everything has pointed to the pressing need to create more “Critical Environments.”

Since the Coronavirus first appeared late last December, the since-renamed respiratory illness COVID-19 has become hourly news, impacting the health of thousands, affecting domestic and international travel, and leaving many wondering about its short and long-term economic implications.

Traced back to the since-shuttered Hunan Seafood Wholesale market, COVID-19 has dominated the world’s consciousness and the fallout has been enormous. Stock markets globally are tumbling. Borders are being closed to non-essential travel. Entire cruise ships with infected passengers are being quarantined and even refused entry to port, as happened in the Dominican Republic.

Responsible, at the time of writing, for 242,209 cases and a death toll approaching 9,991 worldwide, the COVID-19 virus has compelled major financial institutions and businesses including Scotiabank, Shopify, and Amazon to slam the brakes on non-essential corporate travel. Social media giant Facebook is less social than before, cancelling its yearly May developer conference in the face of what is now clearly a pandemic.

Tracking the disease
“Genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003,” the World Health Organization says that the virus (SARS-CoV-2, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) is nevertheless different from SARS. Also originating from Asia, SARS sickened 8,098 with 774 dying worldwide. As devastating as SARS was, the number of persons dying from COVID-19 has already far surpassed the number of SARS victims.

If SARS and the outbreaks following it – the Swine Flu (2009-2010), Avian Flu, and other pandemics – have taught us anything, it is that the need for critical environments to monitor and track illnesses is greater than ever before.

Also known as controlled environments, critical environments are places requiring control systems such as precise temperatures and humidity monitoring, air quality, dust control and mitigation, specific lighting, power controls, medical equipment, seismographs to detect earthquakes, deep-ocean buoys and satellites to track tsunamis, and other life-saving technologies in data centers.

Usually separated from other areas of a building, critical environments in the workplace range from hospital isolation rooms to laboratories and research facilities, switch rooms, electronic assembly areas, computer data centers, cleanrooms, 911 call centers, and other places requiring round-the-clock monitoring.

Building critical environments requires a high degree of expertise and specific construction-management knowledge. Construction is a messy business, and reducing dirt and dust – which can damage sensitive electronics and cause contamination – is especially important during the building of critical environments such as data centers, telecommunications buildings, bioscience labs and research facilities.

These areas and others (pharmaceutical manufacturing for example) must also be built with control systems appropriate for their purpose, which will differ from other applications. Some critical environment applications require PLC, programmable logic controllers, to monitor devices, while others utilize SCADA, supervisory control and data acquisition, for computer systems collecting and analyzing data in real time.

Once these areas are completed, critical environments require ongoing maintenance by skilled technicians to ensure they meet standards set by organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), and the National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB).

Others fall under strict International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards including ISO 14644-1:2015 Cleanroom Classification, governing the number of air changes per hour, airborne particle counts, and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), ensuring products are consistent, and made to meet rigorous quality-control standards.

Worldwide, there are many companies specializing in making sure critical environments such as clean rooms consistently meet standards. These environments are regularly inspected for adequate lighting, optimal temperature and humidity, HVAC, and air quality for commercial, manufacturing, healthcare, government/military, nuclear and other sectors.

Preventing financial loss
When schools, businesses, and manufacturers lose power because of weather or any other number of causes, it is inconvenient and costly; when critical environments like operating rooms and data centers are without electricity, the results can be disastrous. Even with multi-million-dollar investments into protocols, security, systems and technology, downtime can, and does, happen in these environments.

According to the World Economic Forum’s latest study, The Global Risks Report 2019 (14th Edition), the list of reasons for downtime in businesses includes the expected – such as extreme weather events – but has grown to include causes we could barely imagine before 9/11.

Along with natural disasters, the list of risks for loss now includes cyber-attacks, “large-scale involuntary migration,” “biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse,” “asset bubbles in a major economy,” “failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation,” and other economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological factors.

Even the best-designed and equipped critical environments are not exempt from power outages resulting in loss of lighting and HVAC, and rendering sensitive and costly equipment useless where it matters most, such as operating rooms and offsite computer centers.

Back it up
To avoid loss of human life, loss of precious information, and financial ruin, it is crucial that data centers, hospitals, laboratories and other critical environment workplaces have back-up sources of power and systems in place.

In operating rooms, lights and life-saving equipment cannot be allowed to falter if the electricity is knocked out by a storm, an act of sabotage, or technological failure. While other areas of hospitals can remain without light for a brief time – with back-up power usually mandated to kick-in between eight to 10 seconds – critical care spaces like a delivery room must remain functional.

Sadly, there is no shortage of examples of what can happen when humans, and not just systems, fail to prepare properly for, or take the correct steps in an emergency.

When Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September 2017, a state of emergency was soon declared, with the governor bringing in members of the National Guard, and urging Floridians to check their emergency hurricane kits for adequate supplies. Massive attractions like Walt Disney World Resort and the Kennedy Space Center were closed, with mandatory evacuations of residents taking place.

Despite 6.5 million Floridians being advised – or even ordered – to leave the State, some remained, including aged and disabled men and women at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

A poorly rated private nursing home, the 152-bed facility had its power and air conditioning knocked out by Hurricane Irma. According to a later investigation, the Center failed to have a back-up generator for the air-conditioning system in the residence, where temperatures soon soared to 110-degrees F (43-degrees C) in some areas, far exceeding the acceptable state limit.

Despite the presence of a working hospital literally across the street, Center staff failed to act, with 12 residents eventually dying because of the unbearable heat. The facility was ordered to close on September 20, 2017, and several staff members of the Rehabilitation Center were arrested, facing charges of aggravated manslaughter of an elderly person or disabled adult.

As weather becomes more unpredictable, and with world currencies fluctuating wildly because of terrorism, war, and disease, the need for reliable and “fail-proof” critical environments will keep growing. With more and more countries reporting from COVID-19 daily, and cases surging in Italy and other places, local public and international health authorities such as WHO are spreading information on taking precautions.

While the full impact of COVID-19 won’t be revealed for some time, without critical environments monitoring the outbreak, the impact would be far greater than it already is.

June 1, 2020, 10:30 PM EDT