Last reviewed 26 April 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many facilities managers into unfamiliar territory, as millions work from home and workplaces become low use or temporarily empty. Vicky Powell reports on the advice covering maintenance, security considerations, statutory compliance and insurance implications from the Building Engineering Services Association.

Yet another COVID-19 challenge

Managers could be forgiven for feeling that the trials associated with the COVID-19 virus just keep on coming. One massive challenge has been facilitating a move from the conventional workspace to home for many workers. This means numerous commercial buildings are now in low use or empty — but it does not mean that the responsibilities of facilities and building maintenance managers have dwindled.

Rather, the coronavirus is creating novel and unprecedented challenges that need to be dealt with, both currently while staff are still largely working from home and as they begin the return to the workplace.

The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) has published detailed guidance on this topic, covering exactly how buildings can successfully be managed and maintained effectively during the coming weeks and months.

In a recent press statement, a source from the Association advised, “With thousands of people now working from home or prevented from travelling, many commercial buildings are moving into shutdown mode. This has huge implications for building services equipment with decisions that would normally have been planned over many months now having to be taken within days.”

A modified approach is needed

In these uncertain times, the traditional pre-coronavirus risks associated with fire, gas safety, electricity, lift maintenance, legionella and asbestos control of course remain.

However, when the majority of staff are working from home, a new approach of mothballing the site with a view to ensuring that the building can be quickly readied for full occupancy may well be the preferred option. It is, therefore, important to adjust maintenance schedules appropriately.

In this regard, two expert sources of advice include BESA’s guidance SFG20 Planned Preventive Maintenance Standard and SFG30 Mothballing and Reactivation.

The Association says, “Thousands of UK buildings are already maintained in line with the industry’s standard SFG20, which was created by BESA and is continually updated to reflect changing technical and regulatory requirements. Its planned maintenance strategies would continue to keep buildings safe and compliant through this period, but some organisations may decide to mothball their building or at least reduce their maintenance regime to a low level.

“However, full closure and shutdown is a long-term action that would make it difficult to get the building up and running again quickly when the crisis recedes. Elements of the building may also be needed to support staff working from home, such as server rooms, and this brings SFG20’s sister standard, the recently updated and relaunched SFG30 Mothballing and Reactivation into play.”

So what needs to be done?

BESA advises applying its two key guidance documents (SFG20 and SFG30) to varying degrees depending on the building and situation.

Managers will need to assess the needs and apply principles of risk assessment to producing a method of working that satisfies the Government requirements for COVID-19 in relation to statutory and insurance requirements (eg pertaining to legal issues and lease stipulations, etc) and amended contractual needs.

However, the Association advises that key minimum levels of maintenance activity should be based on the following principles.

• Statutory compliance.

• Property security.

• Building fabric protection.

• Business critical systems operation.

• Adherence to any insurance cover requirements.

Common compliance items

BESA has emphasised that there has been no relaxation on the requirements for planned maintenance tasks, as these tasks by their very nature are designed to ensure health and safety, but adds, “if the current regime is operating to SFG20 and continues to do so, the property will be safe and compliant”.

SFG20’s sister standard, SFG30, takes users through a step-by-step process for maintaining critical services during a low occupancy period ready for rapid and full reactivation when business returns to normal. This includes many key elements such as keeping water systems safe and healthy, in line with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance L8 Legionnaires' Disease for legionella control. It also covers, for example:

  • active and passive fire protection systems

  • safe handling of refrigerant gases

  • electrical and gas service safety checks

  • ventilation hygiene

  • how to maintain security systems and lifts if they are still in service.

If low use key maintenance is employed, a maintenance strategy will need to be created and followed.

This, the Association notes, will primarily look at maintaining statutory/insurance requirements and maintaining the security of the building. BESA has supplied a checklist of examples of some of the most common requirements to be maintained in underutilised buildings:

  • water system hygiene requirements under the HSE’s L8 guidance

  • cooling tower compliance under the HSE’s L8 and local authority compliance

  • fire detection system testing and maintenance

  • passive fire protection testing and maintenance including fire doors, fire stopping, fire dampers, etc

  • inspection and maintenance of active fire protection such as sprinkler and fire suppression systems, fire extinguishers, etc

  • electrical safety checks under the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 and IET Wiring Regulations (BS7671)

  • gas safety inspections and maintenance

  • F-gas compliance as a legal requirement for air conditioning and refrigeration systems

  • pressure system safety regulations for example relating to compressed air and pressurised steam systems

  • security systems monitoring and maintenance

  • compliance under the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 for passenger lifts and lifting equipment if they are still to be in service.

However, it should be noted that the above are examples of common compliance items and there are many more that could apply, so individual site assessments will be required to establish the key compliance areas for the site in question.

Strategy considerations

Broadly speaking BESA suggests that strategy considerations could be grouped around, but are not limited to, the following categories.

  • Water systems: These would likely need to be kept operating to prevent later significant costs. Flushing requirements will likely increase with reduced occupancy.

  • Insurance: For longer durations, you should notify your insurance company as they will require the maintenance of fire alarms and sprinklers, for example, especially if the building is left empty for periods.

  • Life safety: If buildings are occupied by security or skeleton workforces, emergency lighting and fire alarm systems, etc remain critical. Emergency generators will need to be tested if they are still being relied upon to provide power in an emergency. Fire suppression systems still need to be checked if they are being left active while the building is shut down. Assets such as hydrants and other fire-fighting facilities need to be discussed with the local fire brigade to determine what they would like to see.

  • Lifts: Where buildings are occupied, lifts need to continue operating as normal, but if it can be shown that lift journeys are reduced, it may be possible to reduce the lift maintenance. However, where lifts are still operating, they will require “thorough examinations” to be carried out as normal. It may be the case that there are multiple lifts in a building and one or more could be removed from operation. (This will need to be checked in line with overall building risk and fire strategies.)

  • Heating systems: These could potentially be winterised as we move into summer months, not necessarily drained down. BESA suggests an injection of chemicals/inhibitors and that systems are left fully charged to stop oxygen and bugs causing issues.

  • Chilled water systems and cooling towers: If no one is on site, towers can be drained and notifications made to the local authority that the tower has been decommissioned.

Sources of expert help

Further guidance and help is available from the Health and Safety Executive and BESA, via email: covid19@thebesa.com or its SFG20 Helpdesk (tel 01768 860459) or the SFG20 website.

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, BESA has made its SFG30 guidance free of charge to its members until further notice and has reduced the price for everyone else by 50%.