DOLE issues new guidance on workplace ventilation to prevent COVID spread

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) is asking business owners to become acquainted with the new guidelines on workplace ventilation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and to use the guidelines’ checklist to assess their compliance.

DOLE Assistant Secretary Ma. Teresita S. Cucueco in an online webinar said Department Order (DO) No. 224-2021 is a guide for companies on the proper ventilation of workplaces and public transport to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But Cucueco allayed concerns over possible initial non-compliance with the DO, adding that the agency is currently focused on helping companies understand and meet the new ventilation requirements rather than on imposing penalties.

Issued on March 3, 2021, DO 224-2021 states that adequate ventilation should be strictly enforced inside the workplace as a preventive measure against COVID-19.

The order is in compliance with the Republic Act No. 11058 or the Occupational and Health and Safety Act, its implementing rules and regulations, and the Occupational Safety and Health Standards.

It is also in compliance with Section II-B (5) of Department of Trade and Industry-DOLE Joint Memorandum Circular 20-04-A, and Department of Health Department Memorandum 2020-0429.

The guidelines cover all commercial and industrial establishments, projects, sites, and all other places where work is undertaken indoors, except for healthcare facilities.

The DO provides general ventilation strategies and recommendations for non-air-conditioned and air-conditioned spaces and for public transport.

For non-air-conditioned workplaces, DO 224-2021 recommends, among others, to maximize ventilation through the use of doors, windows and other openings as well as the use of exhaust fans; ensure that the natural air brought into the workplace is free of contaminants; and conduct frequent cleaning of windows, other openings, and ventilating fans.

For air-conditioned spaces, the DO recommends that for HVAC systems, outdoor air supply should conform to the recommended breathing zone ventilation rates; and the ventilation system should be run for at least 30 minutes before and after spaces are occupied.

Moreover, in workplaces with local air-conditioning units only, ventilation may be done through the use of exhaust fans, and filters that are MERV 13 (minimum efficiency reporting value) or higher in rating or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter rating applicable to the unit may be installed.

In addition, where ventilation is greatly re-circulated or access to outside air is not feasible, filters such as HEPA filtration air purifiers can be used to clean re-circulated air.

Cucueco also urged business owners to use the self-assessment checklist in Annex 1 of the DO to assess compliance, as this same checklist will be used by labor inspectors on workplace visits.

The checklist features eight ventilation compliance indicators for non-air-conditioned spaces and nine compliance indicators for air-conditioned spaces.

Compliance indicators for non-air-conditioned spaces include open and clean windows; no lingering smell, stuffiness of room, feeling of humidity, and/or smokiness of room; ventilating fans that circulate air; and continuously running exhaust fans.

Compliance indicators for air-conditioned spaces include a clean HVAC system or air-conditioning (AC) unit providing outdoor air; the AC unit uses and can handle MERV 13 or higher filter rating; exhaust fans are installed; and air change per minute maintains carbon dioxide levels below 1,000 ppm (parts per million) at all times.

The DO states that the company’s OSH committee or safety officer should include in its OSH program the monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of the guidelines, and that DOLE regional offices will be monitoring compliance.

The DO further states that “in case of violation or non-compliance, the applicable sanctions/penalties under pertinent laws, rules and regulations shall be imposed.”

However, Cucueco stressed that “if you are found non-compliant on the first instance then you will be asked to comply and there is a period of correction.” It is only after the corrective period and being called number of times for non-compliance will the appropriate penalty be imposed for violation of the safety and health program, she said.

DOLE and other relevant agencies will also extend assistance and technical support to all workplaces, employers and workers in complying with the guidelines, the DO said.

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