Employers Must Ensure the Safety of Home Workspaces

“This is worse than a hurricane,” Craig Brown told Good Morning America, referring to the Texas electric grid failure of February 2021 that followed an unexpected and prolonged freeze. He knows the reference point: He’s the mayor of storm-battered Galveston.

Now that the power is already back on, the tendency is to think we’re in the clear — but we are not.  The long-term effects are just starting. Burst pipes, destroyed waste treatment facilities, further loss of jobs, release of pollutants into the air when power plants could not operate — all of these will lead to public health problems that will last longer and be more devastating than even what was seen for the initial days without power.

The task facing Texas is a reminder of the long, messy and expensive endgame required of post-disaster cleanup. Our work on Healthy Buildings, public health, and public infrastructure illustrates the need for businesses to include the long-term health impacts of these catastrophes in their benefit/cost analysis and suggests some analytical steps and appropriate interventions.

The obvious lesson from the Texas grid failure is that almost everyone in the power-generating value chain will now invest in repairing equipment and transmission lines and building in some sort of cold weather protection, storage, or spare capacity. For many homeowners, business, and hospitals, that means gas or diesel generators.  The effort to “electrify everything” to reduce greenhouse gas creation will have to be pushed to the side. Worse, there will be immediate health costs in the form of: more air pollution since many of those installations run dirty; more traffic (and fumes) on the road as more fuel trucks circulate; more house fires; and more carbon monoxide poisoning incidents. In the recent Texas grid failure, the Houston Chronicle reported almost 600 carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning cases in Harris County alone – a figure that projects to over 3,600 cases just of CO poisoning, and multiple deaths just in this state just due to this one incident just this year. Shocking and completely unnecessary.

Almost no business or homeowner today considers health impacts when they do the cost/benefit analysis on how much to spend on insulation or batteries or a little Honda or Generac unit.  It’s natural just to consider what you can easily see and easily pick up at Tractor Supply or Walmart. But this is short sighted and superficial and wrong.

Let’s look just a few months into the future and see why. First, we are already reading stories about hundreds of thousands of homeowners having to boil water since treatment facilities were damaged. This leads to the carbon effects of more electricity generation or cooking gas or propane usage — and higher risks of gastrointestinal disease, as well as outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, or other avoidable and devastating ailments as people get tired of boiling water, can’t afford to boil water, or forget to boil water.

On top of the water issue will be the bad-air issue — both outdoors and indoors.  This is harder to see (except for sometimes when it is all too easy to see smog and particulates). Damaged water services and patched buildings will lead to visible health problems like mold. Still air in tight rooms fighting the cold will lead to worsened chronic diseases like asthma, bronchitis, and croup. Worse, keeping homes and schools closed tight against the cold, and the desperation of families trying to avoid freezing to death may lead to another wave of the coronavirus (not to mention colds, flu, strep throat, and other airborne illnesses).

Think ahead to summer in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Some power-generating capacity will still be down.  Electricity will be expensive. Many homes and business have already tapped out their energy budget for the year.  And not even three months from now, the strings of 100-degree days will start. That will make us miss the cold as the heat will be even more deadly. According to the Chronicle, about 50 people died from causes that could be attributed to the recent winter storm. In the U.S. in 2018, more than 1,000 deaths — 20 times this amount — were attributed to heat; almost all of these were in California, Nevada, and Texas. Poorly insulated buildings will be hot, just as they were cold. Electric power to run air conditioners will be expensive, just as it was to run heaters (although without the same price spikes).  Expect to see headlines about people dying alone in their dark houses because of heat, not because of cold.

The problem is not proportionately spread. CNN reported, for example, that in Texas almost two weeks after the storm, close to 400,000 people remained without clean water. CNN also pointed out that “Black and Latinx families, many already disproportionately impacted by the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, experienced power outages, burst pipes, freezing temperatures and water shutdowns … the storm’s aftershocks continue to be felt in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi where many Black and brown residents continue to lack power, clean drinking water and shelter.” This could be expected to lead to worsening of chronic diseases including congestive heart failure, diabetes and hypertension.

These are not simple costs to calculate. These are long-term problems. What should businesses then do?

As businesses shift, maybe permanently, to work-from-home or work-from-anywhere, the line of responsibility for the workplace also changes, and goes outside “the office” or “the factory.” If the heat were off for days in your company’s workplace, or the water had to be boiled, for sure this would be fixed immediately to keep employees safe (and productive) and keep customers coming. What about if your people will be working from home, not just during a freeze but as a new way of working? Investments should extend beyond traditional workplaces right into people’s houses and apartments.

Why should businesses make these investments? First, consider the long-term costs of bad health of your employees, customers, vendors, and their families. They can’t do their jobs, buy your goods and services, or deliver your ingredients if they are ill. Second, consider their families. Not a lot of moms and dads and big sisters and big brothers work more effectively when someone they love is sick at home. Third, think about the avoided costs of future health expenses. This is where there are real economic savings above just being a considerate company and good citizen. Fourth, think about homes as well as workplaces. We believe that offering incentives for keeping a “healthy home” will pay off for companies since they a) would be less exposed to liability claims around the extended definition of the workplace and b) employees would flat out work better and more productively.

What are examples of health investments in homes that an employer, or school, or manufacturing company, or bank, or technology company might want to finance and install for the benefit of workers and customers? Some are easy: portable air filtration units; fans and filters, even without A/C; and water purification and treatment. Some are a little harder: Insulated, operable windows; efficient heating and cooling from air source heat pumps (yes, they work in the cold now); and energy recovery ventilation and filtration. In multifamily housing, wouldn’t it be cheaper to fix the air flow and tighten the windows and stop the leaks and mold and make sure the elevators are running in lieu of transporting residents in ambulances, having them in ICUs or on ventilators, or having them die?  But we run into the classic problem of “Who pays, and when?” Who should pay, particularly if local governments are already out of funds? In many cases, it’s good business if the answer is business.

We argue, based on our research into both the science and the economics of healthy buildings, that the analysis of investing in resilience in Texas (or California, or Florida, or New York, or anywhere in the world at high risk of natural disasters, which is pretty much everywhere) must include the upfront capital cost for health-related retrofits and new construction and also include the long-term avoided future cost of bad health. You don’t make the right decisions if you don’t include the right components. Healthy people living and working in healthy buildings is a good investment.

Leave a Reply