Steelcase, MIT tackle workplace pathogens

Study to help furniture maker create better product offerings for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
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Steelcase and MIT are studying the spread of droplets and aerosolized pathogens in the workplace. Photo by iStock

Steelcase tagged an expert in the flow of respiratory droplets to help the company determine how workplace design can help mitigate disease transmission.

The Grand Rapids-based office furniture manufacturer last month engaged Professor Lydia Bourouiba, director of The Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to launch a new study.

Bourouiba, a mathematician and scientist, specializes in fluid dynamics and understanding properties of turbulent gas clouds that are produced when people exhale, sneeze or cough, and how that spreads respiratory pathogens.

The goal of the research is to understand how these pathogens spread in typical office layouts and to develop design strategies for how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses at work.

Steelcase will work with Bourouiba to conduct combined laboratory testing and modeling of furniture configurations and materials to determine the best combinations for reducing the spread of respiratory diseases.

The work will happen over a series of three phases, with insights in phase one immediately benefiting organizations by providing best practices to assist in retrofitting or reconfiguring existing workplaces. In the second and third phases, the teams will focus on advanced mitigation strategies supported by scientific research, mathematical algorithms and modeling to inform better workplace designs.

Allan Smith, vice president of global marketing for Steelcase, said after COVID-19 hit in March, Steelcase directed its analytics team to gather data from 8,000 different customer locations that had been installed within the past year to assess the most common office configurations to shed light on the scope of the problem.

Research showed:

  • 77% of individual workspaces do not provide 6 feet or more of distance between employees as recommended by CDC guidelines.
  • 51% of workspaces have one or no space division elements in the front, back or on the side of an individual.
  • When combined, 98% of seats in the office will be at risk. This means these settings do not have either 6 feet of distance between the next closest employee or a space divider that is 54 inches high.

Knowing that 6 feet of distancing is the minimum required, Steelcase then decided to talk with an expert to better understand how droplets move in space.

As a longtime sponsor of the TED conference, Steelcase was aware of Bourouiba because of a 2018 TEDMED talk she gave on the spread of exhalations within offices.

Smith reached out to her and shared Steelcase’s findings on office layouts and risk, noting that whereas in health care settings, where the air flow is exchanged eight times per hour, and on airplanes, where it’s exchanged 20 times per hour, the typical heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system in an office only exchanges air four to five times per hour, making offices even higher risk breeding grounds for sickness than the places Bourouiba typically studies.

She agreed to do the study in the interest of public health.

“Our mission is to apply our scientific discoveries to positively impact public health,” Bourouiba said. “The opportunity to work with Steelcase, the global leader in workplace solutions, is exciting because it allows us to amplify our work to mitigate the spread of disease at a larger scale and maximize the number of safe workspaces around the world.”

Smith said the study will take place at MIT’s lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, using furniture provided by and layouts designed by Steelcase.

“She’ll look at a typical office layout in a typical HVAC environment,” Smith said. “We’ll have a human subject that will sneeze or cough or speak. And then we also have the ability to create a synthetic sneeze or cough, then we can actually measure those droplets with a high-speed camera.”

The study is expected to take about a year for all three phases, and the partners hope to publish their initial findings from phase one in the next three months.

Smith said the results will help Steelcase make data-driven decisions about how to get teams back to work to foster better innovation than what can happen at home, using new products and new technologies to enhance safety.

“A science-based approach right now is critically important, especially when we’re talking about human life and people getting sick. We really want to rely on the science and the data, not on people’s intuition,” Smith said.

“The other thing is that 6-foot distancing rule is based on a 1930s epidemiological study. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but there’s an opportunity to either update or reconfirm that number. … A human being has enough power in their lungs to sneeze droplets up to 26 feet. We know that the larger droplets, the heavier droplets, typically fall within 6 feet, but from (Bourouiba’s) research, what she realized was that oftentimes, a sneeze or cough or even human speech can be aerosolized into tiny gaseous particles that can travel much further than 6 feet. We’re reading more and more about these aerosolized particles, and it’s just coming into the mainstream press right now. It’s something she’s been working on for three-plus years.”

He added Steelcase clients have been clamoring for solutions in the wake of COVID-19.

“Whether (our clients are) offices or K-12 schools or higher education, they’re trying to understand what they can do to limit the spread of disease. Some of the biggest requests we’re getting from customers are things like adding new and taller screens, looking at reorienting and reconfiguring workstations, (and) one big area of interest is investing in single-person architectural enclaves, both freestanding as well as connected to the building,” Smith said.

“We’re also getting a lot of requests to modify HVAC systems and add some kind of pathogen kill technology. And then, one other cool thing that we’re working on is a whole series of new textiles and surface materials that can be cleaned with either diluted bleach or, in some cases, straight bleach, where we can pour bleach right on there and it doesn’t take away any of the color or the texture.”

The second phase of the study will focus on testing those specific furniture concepts. In the third phase, researchers will develop a mathematical model Steelcase can input data into to “predict airflow and pathogen transfer” of a given product, so every new furnishing that rolls off the line won’t need to be individually tested.

Smith said he can foresee the study results will not only spur Steelcase to develop many of its own products in answering the problem, such as furniture, architectural, technology and textile solutions, but the company also may partner with other tech companies in the areas of HVAC or air cleaning technologies.

“Steelcase’s mission is to make a meaningful difference in people’s work lives every day. What more profound impact can we have than to help with their human health? We’re really excited about that,” he said.

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