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The uneven rise of the healthy workplace

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 4/15/2021 Courtney Humphries
A Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in Missouri, before the pandemic. © Daniel Acker A Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in Missouri, before the pandemic.

When he goes to work six days a week to grind frozen meat at a Tyson chicken processing plant in Rogers, Ark., Eduardo (a pseudonym to protect his identity) is fearful and worried. The 38-year-old immigrant from Mexico says the company has provided masks and hand sanitizer but working conditions have only gotten worse during the pandemic. “They made us work faster and work more with the excuse that we have to feed the country,” he tells me through an interpreter. He believes that most of his team members have tested positive for COVID, but he says the company doesn’t immediately notify workers when others get sick. (Tyson did not respond to my requests for comment.)

Eduardo’s job — preparing chicken nuggets and chicken burgers — requires working closely with other people in a hot, confined space. He says the ventilation must be poor because the large ovens sometimes fill the room with smoke, irritating workers’ eyes and throats and making it hard to see. That’s just the kind of environment known to fuel the virus’s spread. He’s thought about leaving his job for one in construction, but the seasonality of that work would pose a financial risk.

The air quality issues that Eduardo describes will likely persist after the pandemic. But the story is completely different in offices around the country, where new concern about the indoor environment is prompting changes. Companies are spending billions to make these spaces safer and healthier now and long after the pandemic is over.

Anyone entering a JP Morgan Chase bank branch in Boston, for instance, will see a seal indicating it has achieved WELL Health and Safety certification, a set of best practices for infection control and general safety. In an emailed statement, David Arena, head of global real estate at the company, says: “With building health and air quality standards top of mind as the COVID pandemic continues, we wanted anyone entering one of our buildings or branches to see the WELL decal and know we’re doing all we can to keep our employees and visitors safe and healthy.”

Jessica Cooper, chief commercial officer at the International WELL Building Institute, which administers the WELL standard, says there’s also growing interest in WELL’s core offering, a program that certifies that employers provide broad health-promoting measures, like safe air and water, good lighting and ergonomics, and access to healthy foods and exercise. During the pandemic, the organization has averaged a million square feet of newly enrolled projects each day.

WELL is a voluntary program that requires businesses to see healthy buildings as a worthy investment. While the standard has been used in many types of buildings, from warehouses to malls to schools, its bread and butter is corporate offices, exactly the kind of space where workers have been least affected by the pandemic. Office buildings are getting upgrades in ventilation and other equipment, and office plans are being rethought; open offices won’t necessarily go away, but companies are finding ways to make them less dense and carve out more personal spaces.

The pandemic could spur a longer-term trend of investing in healthy and safe buildings, but if they are thought of primarily as necessary to woo office workers back to work, we run the risk of perpetuating indoor environmental injustices. Current regulation of indoor environments in the United States is spotty and poorly enforced. Without more collective action, work environments out of the public spotlight — like the plant where Eduardo works — will slip through the cracks.

Feeling woozy

COVID-19 has focused attention on the health and safety of indoor environments like nothing before it. “People are tuning in to their surroundings,” says Richard Corsi, an indoor-air-quality researcher at Portland State University. “Whether it’s their own home or their apartment or their child’s school or their workplace, suddenly people are looking at those indoor environments and saying, Is this a safe indoor environment? How can I make it safer?” For scientists like Corsi, that attention seems long overdue. Decades of research have uncovered the health impacts of indoor air pollution and other building-related issues.

For example, indoor air pollution includes allergens like dust and pollen and hundreds of chemicals from building materials, furniture, rugs, personal care products, cleaners, and machines like computer printers. Places where food is cooked, like the poultry processing facility where Eduardo works, can accumulate high levels of particulate matter and carbon monoxide. Recent research also suggests that high levels of carbon dioxide, which builds up in poorly ventilated rooms with lots of occupants, can diminish cognition and alertness.

Massachusetts has failed to collect good occupation data for most reported COVID cases, but studies have found higher death rates in people who can’t work from home, says Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. Hundreds of clusters have been seen in food processing centers, warehouses, and meatpacking plants. “We’re seeing people getting sick, and oftentimes it’s from being close to each other,” Sugerman-Brozan says. “But I think it’s also related to the quality of the buildings and warehouses and things in which people are working.”

Attention to indoor air quality during the COVID-19 pandemic has been uneven. Although scientific evidence has mounted that the virus can be transmitted through tiny aerosol particles that travel on air currents, official recommendations have often downplayed air flow and ventilation as an infection control strategy. Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were slow to acknowledge the importance of airborne viral transmission; while the CDC does provide guidelines for building ventilation, it hasn’t emphasized making upgrades as part of its overall pandemic recommendations. “It is driving people in the indoor-air field nuts,” says Corsi. He and other researchers have taken to giving advice through Twitter threads and media interviews on how to use ventilation and portable air filters to make homes, offices, and schoolrooms safer.

But do-it-yourself strategies won’t do much for a worker at a grocery store, restaurant, factory, or warehouse who has little control over their workspace. Ventilation is not equally regulated across workplaces and is often left to the discretion of business owners, says Diana Ceballos, a Boston University environmental health researcher focused on health disparities. Older buildings may lack HVAC systems or operable windows that bring in fresh air, and many businesses simply recirculate air for energy efficiency.

Investing in indoor air quality can have multiple benefits beyond a pandemic. A good example is in Boston’s nail salons. The city passed regulations in 2013 mandating better ventilation in nail salons based on a growing awareness of health hazards that salon workers face from toxic chemicals building up inside cramped rooms. The Boston Public Health Commission helped pay for salons’ upgrades, so that almost all were complying by 2019. When the coronavirus hit, salons were better prepared to operate safely.

Collective action

The Clean Air Act stops at the doorway: There is no equivalent federal legislation controlling indoor air pollution. One reason is that we more easily perceive outdoor air as a public good. “The indoor air space is seen as more of a private type of commodity,” says Jamaji Nwanaji-Enwerem, an environmental health scientist at UC Berkeley and final-year medical and public policy student at Harvard. The federal government issues numerous guidelines for improving indoor air quality and some health standards for specific substances, he says, but indoor air quality in workplaces is mostly regulated by a patchwork of local and state regulations. Building codes primarily come into play when a building is constructed or renovated, so older and poorly maintained buildings may be subpar in factors like ventilation systems.

During the pandemic, there have been calls for stricter standards. “For many food workers, it has been hard enough to get employers to provide masks,” says Elizabeth Walle of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker advocacy groups that includes Venceremos, a nonprofit fighting for worker protections at the Tyson plant where Eduardo works. “But masks are not sufficient to protect workers from COVID-19 when they have prolonged interactions in poorly ventilated spaces.” Employers, she says, “have proven that they will not implement sufficient protections on their own, and many will retaliate against workers who stand up for their own safety.”

The alliance has been calling on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to mandate worker protections, including better air flow, as a temporary measure during the pandemic. Longer term, proponents of better indoor air quality disagree about whether and how to regulate and enforce it. Ventilation is complex: Different types of rooms and buildings require different strategies for optimizing air flow, bringing in outdoor air, or filtering air that recirculates. And indoor air quality also depends on how the building is used and operated, not just how it’s built, and that is much harder to track and enforce.

Inexpensive air quality monitors have made it possible to gain real-time data about specific pollutants or carbon dioxide in buildings, offering a general measure of ventilation levels. “This completely changes the equation because it democratizes your ability to know what’s in your air,” says John Macomber, a lecturer at Harvard Business School and co-author of “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity.” Such monitors could help empower workers by giving them better knowledge about conditions that are hard to perceive.

Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of the environmental justice nonprofit GreenRoots in Chelsea, says that her organization has been in touch with local businesses about retrofitting buildings for better health and safety, “but it’s just another added cost in a time that’s so economically challenging.” Broader change, she says, requires a mandate, whether it’s at the local, state, or national level. Incentives can also work; Bongiovanni points to a program in Chelsea that used 2009 federal stimulus funds to offset the costs of retrofitting diesel engines at the New England Produce Center, reducing the pollution from a major local source. She thinks that a similar program could incentivize business owners to improve ventilation systems in their facilities. Incentives could also come from the private sector; Macomber suggests that health insurers, for instance, could begin to demand certain features like air filters in workplaces to protect worker health.

The pandemic has led to a wave of collective worker action. In New Bedford’s fish processing industry, for example, strong worker advocacy has helped to shape the city’s response to the pandemic, resulting in safety measures that have been held up as a model for other cities. But Adrian Ventura, executive director of the New Bedford-based worker advocacy group Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, says that as some of the immediate concerns of COVID transmission ease, his organization is increasingly focused on concerns like wage theft, lack of overtime pay, and sexual harassment among the largely immigrant population. It’s unrealistic to expect workers in industries and communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic to lead the fight for better workplace environments on their own. It’s up to policymakers and regulators to bring environmental protections indoors.

Courtney Humphries is a freelance writer and a PhD candidate in environmental sciences at UMass Boston.

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