Deeply rooted organizational safety protocols and methodical problem solving have made even a pandemic somewhat more manageable for U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center (ATC).
Using these tools has been especially helpful to determine large-scale disinfecting protocols for an organizational mission set that, by necessity, requires employees to work in close proximity, with multiple people utilizing the same equipment, tools, and workspaces. Scenarios that are difficult to accomplish safely in the midst of a pandemic.
“We knew right away that in order to keep testing we needed to quickly adjust our already robust safety procedures to include the unusual hazards and risks presented by COVID-19,” said Graham Walker, ATC Safety Director. “This included developing improved ways to routinely disinfect our work areas.”
Walker and his Safety Office team, responsible for the test center’s response to COVID-19, worked with ATC leadership and other partners to design a set of standard operating procedures to mitigate workforce risk immediately following the pandemic outbreak. Researching and determining the most advantageous methods to provide a safe environment through large-scale disinfecting became a project for Mumbi Thande-Kamiru, Technical Assistant to the Director, and Michelle Brain, Safety Engineer. For Thande-Kamiru, outlining disinfecting processes in clear, understandable language was an important aspect to building confidence in the returning workforce.
“I think we are all very clear on how to keep ourselves safe at home, but a lot of people are coming back to work and are now confronted with a new normal,” Thande-Kamiru said. “That makes it very important that people can answer ‘what is required of me in order to maintain this safe working space for me and my coworkers?’”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to include social distancing, mask recommendations, and the need to disinfect highly touched surfaces. Identifying the most effective and efficient disinfecting protocols for the countless high-touch surfaces across the test center was complex.
Using CDC guidelines and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance for disinfectants effective for use against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, as a foundation, the team outlined a methodic process to determine disinfecting protocols suitable to minimize the spread of the virus in the unique conditions at ATC. The final plan must be comprehensive and alleviate as much pressure from the work force as possible, Thande-Kamiru added.
“We focused on effectiveness, suitability, and safety,” Thande-Kamiru said. “We looked at disinfectants according to those criteria and narrowed it down. Then we looked at compatibility with various sprayers and different materials. We needed to come up with solutions that were easy on the workforce without adding additional time or logistical burden to employees.”
To learn as much as possible about all of the options for large-scale disinfecting, the team reached out to private industry and other military organizations to gain lessons learned. Southwest Airlines and Boeing provided knowledge on processes and managing the disinfection of various types of surfaces, such as seats and sensitive equipment. Guidance from Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic and the Army Public Health Center provided occupational health insights. All of which helped to guide protocols for the test center.
“We relied heavily on their feedback,” Michelle Brain said. “It helped us with our own insight as to what we were looking for in disinfectants and what technologies we were going to employ. It really helped to narrow down and shape our protocols.”
The team conducted pilot tests with various disinfectants and application methods at several locations across the test center. Ultimately, Thande-Kamiru says, large-scale disinfecting is not a “one-size-fits-all” process due to the various testing processes and commodities at ATC, each of which has a unique set of circumstances.
“Each location must be customized,” Thande-Kamiru said. “We are looking at any sensitive equipment, the type of materials in the area such as porous or non-porous, the activity taking place in each location. We’re really taking in to account what we think would be suitable to working in that space to determine what is a good fit for the disinfector and applicator combination for all the different areas we see here at ATC.”
While both women learned much in their research, for Thande-Kamiru there is a lesson that is valuable both at home and at the workplace: the importance of following manufacturers’ guidance when using disinfectants, most notably following the recommended contact time, or the amount of time a surface must remain wet in order for the disinfectant to be most effective.
“One thing that I sincerely hope everybody does when looking at a disinfectant is to consider contact time as criteria,” Thande-Kamiru said. “A lot of disinfectants that are on the shelf right now have a contact time of 10 minutes. That means that your surface has to stay wet for 10 minutes in order to be disinfected by that particular chemical. It’s really important to make sure you are using the disinfectant according to directions, especially when it comes to contact time.”
While the team has identified the large-scale disinfecting protocols that make sense for various sites across the test center, their mission isn’t over.
“We have a solution, but it’s not the final solution,” Brain said. “The more we learn about COVID-19 and as different technologies come along, we will need flexibility in our plan to adjust as necessary.”
The efforts of Thande-Kamiru, Brain, and the ATC workforce to outline disinfecting protocols is invaluable to the safety of the workforce, Walker says.
“The disinfecting protocols they are outlining through their research and trials will be key to keeping our workforce safe and effective,” Walker said. “Efforts like theirs are why we have been able to continue our test mission safely, and innovative solutions will become even more important as we try to operate more efficiently in this new environment.”
Supporting the efforts to reduce the risk of COVID-19 entering the workforce has been rewarding for Brain.
“I’m not the one doing the test, but in my own way this is how I can help to support the mission,” Brain said. “If I can help get people get back to work and back to their families at the end of the day through this pandemic, that is reward enough.”