Avoiding Harmful Contaminants in the Hospital Environment
Potentially harmful particles can be all around you when hospital construction is underway.
By Dave Branch
The last time you were in the hospital, either as a patient or as visitor, did you stop to consider that the air you were breathing or the surfaces that you were touching could make you sick, or worse, kill you? We are not talking about some superbug or airborne disease that would cause this, but something that you might least expect: airborne or surface contaminants from construction debris.
Did you know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 2 million patients or visitors acquire infections in U.S. hospitals while hospitalized or staying with a loved one for other health problems? In addition, 88,000 die as a direct or indirect result. It is estimated that about 5,000 of these are related to construction.
Roughly $10 billion is spent on health care facility construction in the United States every year. About 70 percent of the total amount is spent on renovation, and 30 percent on new construction. More than ever, it is important that construction professionals, which include mason contractors, be educated and fully understand how renovations and construction projects can compromise the air quality of patients.
Demolition without proper containment walls; exterior wall and interior wall removal; and core drilling can heighten infection risk in health care facilities. This is due to airborne fungal spores, which typically originate on water-damaged building materials. And, it does not look like it has any visible mold. It could be in the wall cavity, or it could have been painted over. It also could have new material laminated over it. In older facilities, 80 percent to 90 percent of buildings typically used masonry construction materials (clay tile, CMU, structural brick).
A mold such as Aspergillus can grow on modern building materials, if they are wet for more than 72 hours. This could happen, potentially, in areas where water intrusion is happening for days before it is discovered. These spores can become airborne during demolition or construction. They have what is known as “low settling velocities,” and they remain airborne for long periods of time. These particles are microscopic and unnoticeable.
Additionally, during renovations where water has not caused damage, areas can have built up bacteria, mold and viruses. These can breed in water that was airborne and settled on walls above ceiling, on the concrete floor slabs above ceiling, or other construction locations that you normally don’t see with the human eye.
Hospitals in the United States are regulated by The Joint Commission. This organization creates regulations and guidelines that hospitals must follow to stay accredited and remain operational. Part of those regulations and guidelines are created to educate facilities on what must be done during construction to protect both patients and the public. These regulations and guidelines are maintained and enforced by a facility’s infection control and maintenance and/or engineering department. Typically, they have both checklists and permitting procedures that must be followed and maintained. Additionally, monitoring and inspections are done before, during and after construction, in an organized and prescribed periodic manner. These safeguards are put into place so that you, as the contractor, are not only protected from the physical contaminants, but also the potential legal risks, should the safeguards not be followed.
Protection is usually provided in the form of temporary barriers or containments walls, equipping the construction zone with negative air pressure exhausts and other protective measures.
So, the next time you see those barricades in a healthcare environment, you can appreciate the safety inspectors on your jobsite. They are there to provide you with protection.
Dave Branch is the facility documentation manager at Children’s of Alabama located in Birmingham, Ala. Prior to working at Children’s, he worked for more than 23 years in a traditional architectural firm in Georgia and Alabama. He also worked for a local Birmingham-based construction company, assisting them with BIM Management and implementation. His previous design and project management experience includes commercial, residential, educational (both K-12 and higher education), hospitality, and healthcare.