COVID-19: Repurposing Facilities to Support Essential Services

April 8, 2020 | COVID-19, Insights

The COVID-19 crisis has placed an unprecedented level of pressure on the medical profession, both the unsurpassed support it is providing to society through patient care, and also accommodating the intensified demand for existing and new medical equipment.

But in the face of uncertainty, non-medical businesses are stepping up to strengthen the support. During the past few weeks, many UK businesses have reinvented their purpose to support the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Examples include:

  • London’s ExCel conference centre’s transformation into the world’s largest critical care facility in just two weeks. The new NHS Nightingale Hospital will have the capacity to treat up to 4,000 COVID-19 patients. Two further NHS Nightingale Hospitals will open in Birmingham and Manchester.
  • The likes of Dyson, Formula 1 teams, and car manufacturers turning their attention to using their engineering expertise to design and manufacture much-needed ventilators in time to support the NHS during the peak of the crisis.
  • Hotels across the UK offering beds to house both NHS key workers and less critical patients during the crisis.

With this unique situation and a need to respond quickly, we look at some of the immediate considerations for businesses contemplating the repurposing of facilities to support demand and reasonable steps owners can take to prepare.

Backup Power Systems

To be suitable for use by the NHS, manufacturing or other essential services, facilities will require adequate backup power systems to provide continuity of service. The following steps will provide clarity on the suitability of existing systems.

  • Where backup systems are already integrated within a site’s infrastructure, the first step is to run generators to demonstrate that the engine is in working order. Failure to start is most likely to be attributed to flat batteries, a malfunctioning starter motor(s) or stale fuel.
  • If the system hasn’t been used for more than six months, check the diesel condition and consider replacement in line with all relevant environmental legislation relating to safe disposal. Without a fuel scrubbing system, diesel can degrade rapidly and has a shelf life of between 6 to 12 months in the absence of stabilisers or biocides.
  • A full generator test, on the building load or a mobile load bank test, should be carried out to flag any problems with the alternator, electrical cabling or switchgear, and ensure that the system is responsive to changes in demand. Mobile load banks and generators can be hired from a number of local firms along with all necessary switchgear and cabling required to make the connection.
  • To ensure that the generator can be attached to the existing power supply, check that there is an available socket on the switch panel. If there isn’t, check for an outgoing connection point (known as a spare way) which is large enough in terms of physical size and electrical capacity to connect the generator using the breakers and cable equipment supplied by the hiring company.

Medical Facilities

Hospitals and medical facilities are required to satisfy enhanced technical standards, known as the Health Technical Memoranda (HTM). These cover everything from anti-bacterial surfaces to ventilation and resilient power systems. Examples include requirements for operating theatres to have completely isolated medical circuits with uninterruptable power supplies, and general medical premises needing at least standard and backup for power.

Whilst it is unlikely that many businesses operating outside the medical community will meet the HTMs, any repurposed facilities are more likely to house less critical patients and therefore could provide an opportunity for building owners to provide essential support under these extraordinary conditions.

When repurposing a building to house hospital patients, it is important to consider a number of mechanical system requirements:

  • Water Supplies – As occupants may be more at risk than normal, conducting a survey of the water provision will address whether additional water purification is necessary to prevent diseases such as Legionnaires. If the water is not suitable for a medical facility, treatments such as copper-silver ionisation are available but come at significant cost (upwards of £10,000).
  • Ventilation – Ventilation is key to removing harmful bacteria and viruses from the environment and should be maximised where possible. Any systems which recirculate air should be shut down and a new fresh airflow with good pressurisation introduced to the space and tempered to at least 18 degrees Celsius.

For the benefit of new building users, ensuring correct signage and waste schemes are in place can prevent problems with facilities.

Waste Management

With a change in purpose, facilities will likely require adjustments to the current waste disposal procedures. To prepare a building for repurposing, the following steps should be considered:

  • Waste Collection – Any extra waste which may be created due to the new purpose should be communicated with your waste collection provider to ensure adequate provision is available. Additional suppliers may be needed to collect waste from construction works and new waste streams created, such as clinical or medical waste.
  • Waste Disposal – Once operational, if the facilities will house medical patients, consideration will need to be given to how to dispose of waste which may have come into contact with the virus. A dedicated, secure waste disposal area should be identified to house potentially contaminated waste for 72 hours. After this time, Public Health England state that it can be disposed of as normal. If the waste can’t be safely stored, an additional waste collection should be arranged in line with category B infectious waste. See the full Public Health England guidance here.
  • Hazards – Changes to existing waste procedures should be considered to ensure that they don’t create hazards such as blocking emergency escapes and creating fire hazards.
  • Communication – Any updates to the current waste management procedures should be communicated with staff, and training provided where needed, as well as adequate signage placed around waste disposal areas.

If you require support with any of the topics discussed, contact Mark Hawker using the form below.

Mark Hawker
Chief Engineer, UK

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