Sylvia Fontes of Forensic Analytical Consulting Services (FACS) recently joined our podcast to discuss how the environmental consulting company has been supporting hygiene efforts during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Fontes gives tips for companies as they start to transition back into the workplace or jobsite. She explains how the company has also continued its work in the field by analyzing environmental information and helping to guide and monitor. She offers a unique perspective on how our actions now may make a longer-term difference.
[This podcast was recorded on June 11, 2020.]
Stephanie Chizik: Silvia, thanks so much for joining us.
Silvia Fontes: Thank you, Stephanie, for the opportunity. I appreciate it.
SC: Why don’t you start by giving our listeners your background and that of FACS?
SF: Sure. As far as my background is concerned, I’m a certified industrial hygienist. I have been in the field of industrial hygiene for the last 35 years. My work has all been in California but around the country with my clients. I have been involved in all different types of industrial hygiene from all different manufacturers, including even work in the Middle East during the Iraq wars, making sure we were protecting our workers who were rebuilding in the Middle East. We’ve had work in Guam and Korea — all over the world with my consulting.
Then with Forensic Analytical Consulting, I’m the director of the Sacramento area. We have 21 employees here who do industrial hygiene and safety work for our clients. That includes infection control. So the COVID pandemic kind of fell right into what we normally do, and we’ve been helping our clients with that.
SC: That sounds like an extensive background. Because you're dealing with so many companies and countries, are there different policies that you have to help guide them through? Obviously, we’re all dealing with COVID-19 as a global pandemic, but I would imagine how businesses are required legally to handle those would be different.
SF: In different countries, there are differences. Right now we are dealing only with clients within the United States. So we’re just following the guidance that has been provided in this country.
SC: You're out of Sacramento. What has life been like for the past few months? I guess it’s been a bit different for all of us, but what’s it like for you guys?
SF: It really has been a little different for us. As I said, this is what we do. When you become an industrial hygienist, our job is to protect employee and public health. So this is really right up our alley, the type of work that we enjoy doing. We just fell right in, doing what we do best, which is making sure that we’re following the research and helping our own employees as well as our clients’ to follow the appropriate guidance. So things have changed for us in the aspect that our own employees have to protect themselves while we’re out there helping. We’ve been doing respirator fit testing in healthcare settings, so our starr are right there with nurses and doctors who are treating patients who have been positive for COVID. We’ve had to make sure that our protection is in place for our own employees as well as helping others.
SC: I want to get eventually to how we get people back into the office. I was looking at some of the blog posts on your website. You have a lot of great resources there. One of them — I didn’t even think about it, but it makes sense — not only does the wearing of the respirator matter, but also how you take it off, where you touch it, then cleaning your hands afterward. There are a lot of steps involved that I didn’t even think of.
SF: There really are. You’re right. Most don’t think of that. But as you're wearing whatever type of face covering it is — whether it’s a mask or an N95 respirator or a half-face respirator — the coatings industry is very familiar with wearing all different types of respiratory protection — those are potentially contaminated, inside and outside. Especially when we relate that to COVID, there will definitely be some contamination on both sides.
We do have to be careful with the cross-contamination — as you put that mask on, take it off, where you place it, and making sure that we’re not touching our face as we’re doing that. Then of course, making sure that we either wash our hands with soap and water or use an antiseptic product to clean our hands with because we’ve now touched something that is potentially contaminated.
SC: I suspect you're right that at least a lot of our contractor readers and the people who are in the field are used to this type of behavior. I think of lead paint or something like that.
SF: Exactly. So they’re accustomed to going through decontamination when they’re working with lead paint removal. It’s very similar. When you’re removing any PPE that you're wearing because of COVID, you're really taking it off in the same fashion that you would when you're doing decontamination for lead paint removal. There’s really not that much difference between the two. We just want to make sure that we’re not touching our face because that’s how the virus will get into our bodies.
SC: What are you hearing from your clients? It sounds like some of them are familiar with these types of behaviors, but I suspect some are also new to it.
SF: We have quite a variety of clients. While we work with the coatings industry, we also work with healthcare and a lot of different manufacturing and office — facilities that are managing office spaces. Coatings clients are very familiar with it. We are helping our coatings clients implement COVID procedures on their jobsites, to make sure that they’re in compliance, protecting their own employees and protecting the public. In reality, helping our coatings clients has probably been easiest because procedures are very similar to what they’ve been doing. Helping, say, companies that are in office buildings, completely different procedures than they’re accustomed to, so we’ve had to do a lot of education in that area with them.
SC: Just in my personal life, I mentioned Legionnaire’s disease to a friend of mine, and she had never heard of it. She’s in charge of her building.
SF: That is one of the things that we have in one of our blogs, is reopening your buildings if they’ve been closed, to make sure that water-borne pathogens are one of the things that we have to be concerned about. When you’ve had your water turned off for one or two months, you’ve got some dead ends in that water, and pathogens can grow. Legionella is one of those. We do have to be careful as we go back into our buildings and turn things back on.
SC: I saw that ventilation was on there as well. Are there any specific tips that you could share with our readers and listeners? It could be anywhere from a mom-and-pop shop in a small office to those larger contractor firms who are returning to the office in a growing capacity.
SF: As far as tips, they’re going to want to make sure that they go through their office and they do a good disinfection of their office. They’re going to want to flush their water, so all their sinks and toilets and any other running water in the facility. Make sure that gets flushed really well before employees are back in there. As I said, disinfect. Make sure that they’ve got all their procedures in place before they come back into their facility so that they’re ready to go on day one when the staff is back in, that they’ve got all that they need in place there.
SC: It does seem like a lot of states — and I know it’s state by state — are deciding if they want to do it at a 50% capacity. Slowly turning back the wave to normal — the new normal.
SF: Right, whatever that new normal is. You’re right, every state is doing it a little bit differently. There is guidance from the CDC, the World Health Organization, but each state has their own guidance as well. Basically, when you're going back in, whether it’s out on a coatings jobsite or whether it’s in an office building, we are looking at that physical distancing as well as our hand hygiene and wearing the face mask to protect each person. The physical distancing is what is limiting the number of people that may be on a jobsite or in an office building or a restaurant. We just need to make sure that we maintain that physical distance to help slow the spread.
SC: I’ve seen some larger facilities, like in the shipbuilding industry, are changing the ships so that can spread the people out over longer periods of time. That’s not an option for everyone but it is for some.
SF: Yes, and what a lot of construction companies are doing is they are staggering. They’re staggering the number of people if they can possibly do that, so that they’re doing different jobs at different times, and staggering their subcontractors that are coming in. So possibly going over a 24-hour period instead of a 10- or 12-hour period. And not having everyone on the jobsite at one time so that they can maintain that separation between people when possible.
SC: That makes sense. We don’t have a crystal ball, but if you were to guess how this might affect the industry moving forward, do you see any patterns that might be emerging that could affect the overall hygiene industry or the construction industry in particular? Any takes from that?
SF: Long-term, I think we’re in this for a longer term than we probably would like to be. So that physical distancing I think is with us probably through the next flu season, would be our guess. But things are changing on a daily basis as we have new research coming through. At Forensic Analytical, we are watching that daily to make sure that we’re up to date. If the physical distancing is going to stay, the hygiene is going to stay, I think it’s going to be a long time before we get rid of that, to make sure at least through the next flu season until there’s a vaccine or some immunity in the community with it.
SC: Where do you get that information when you distill it? Is it coming directly from the CDC?
SF: Within Forensic Analytical, we have formed an expert COVID team. We’re meeting three times a week. We’re looking at CDC, World Health Organization, a number of other — so there’s EPA with their disinfectants — a number of other sites. What we do is not just look at what those organizations are saying, but we actually look at the research that they are citing. We look at that actual research so that we can see what the researchers have concluded as opposed to what somebody else might be summarizing it. We want to look at that actual research.
SC: Right, from the primary source.
SC: We’re definitely familiar with that on the writing side of the house. When you're writing an article, you want to make sure that you're getting it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
SF: Exactly, yes. So we’ve been looking at as much as we can on a daily basis to stay up to date because there is new information coming out almost daily, and it changes our processes.
SC: I’m sure. You said you're meeting three times a week. Of course, there is so much else going on that you have to be concerned about at your job. It’s not all COVID all the time.
SF: Exactly. It isn’t COVID all the time, but for some of us it feels like it is right now.
SC: Oh yes, sure. What other sorts of projects are you working on at FACS?
SF: We do quite a variety of service lines. We are involved in asbestos, lead, and mold work. We do a variety of industrial hygiene, so we’re out doing exposure assessments. For instance, on a coatings project, doing the exposure assessments for the lead or methylene chloride or NMP, depending on what they’re using to remove the lead paint. We are out on all kinds of construction sites, office buildings, any type of manufacturing. If there’s a welding operation, we’ll do exposure assessments for the welding fields. Mold assessments.
We’re in healthcare. If there’s a water leak, we’re making sure that that’s taken care of so that we don’t have any mold growth inside a healthcare facility. We’re doing things like water-borne pathogens for our clients. We do PCB work. So if they’re doing a building demolition or remodel and they need to know what its PCB is, we will monitor that as well. Basically, anything that has to do with the health of an employee or the public as they’re out near worksites, we’re wanting to make sure that we’re protecting them.
SC: So you make an analysis, and then what do you do with that? Do you give recommendations? How does that work?
SF: Absolutely. For instance, if I’m out on a jobsite and I’m doing an exposure assessment, let’s just say it’s for hearing conservation and we’re looking at what the noise exposure is. We will compare those results to the OSHA recommendations, their permissible exposure limits. We’ll be observing the employees as they’re working, so we will provide recommendations as to what they need to lower their noise exposure — or their chemical exposure. Recommendation for that. Do some training for the employees to help them understand what they need to do. Protective equipment, engineering controls, and whatever we can recommend to help lower that exposure so that we can prevent the illness from occurring.
SC: I wonder if we could compare you guys to the hygiene side of the house similar to what our coatings inspectors would do. I had someone explain it one time as they are the umpires, they’re not the policemen. So here’s where the strike zone is and we’re trying to guide you to hit that strike zone.
SF: That sounds familiar. We’re definitely not the policemen. We don’t do any enforcement. We are there as consultants and providing recommendations for our clients. We hope that we’re partnering with our clients. That’s what we strive to do so that they’re trusting us and we’re training them to be experts as well, so that they can move forward and implement those recommendations and protect their staff. We want everyone coming back to work as healthy as they were the day before. That’s our goal.
SC: Absolutely. Definitely a challenge when you can’t engineer those concerns out of the jobsite, so to speak.
SF: Exactly. We try and engineer out as much as we can, but as you said, it’s not possible to do that for everything. We certainly try.
SC: You have to do it. Makes sense.
SF: That’s right. Exactly.
SC: Before we even started recording, we were talking about moving to the work-from home atmosphere. Are there any suggestions you could give to our readers — pertaining to hygiene or not — in this more or new virtual world for people?
SF: As far as coming back into the workplace?
SC: Yes, coming back or if people are still stuck at home, trying to do their jobs as best as they can.
SF: As the best they can from home. And it has certainly meant it for a lot of people who haven’t worked from home. You definitely want to make sure, one, that you're taking care of yourself, whether you're at home or you're at work. We’re finding a lot of people who are stressed being at home. They’re not moving around necessarily as much as they would have been. They’re getting some fatigue from doing all these wonderful video conferences, been stuck at their computer a little bit more. So yes, definitely taking care of themselves. Making sure that they’re following personal hygiene at home as well as in the office.
I think the transition back to the office is happening slowly, for sure. A lot of offices are just bringing back a few employees at a time so that they get used to that process before they bring people in. But to make sure that they follow procedures in the offices as well. Even within our office, we staggered our staff. We’re making sure that people are spread out a little bit more. People are still working from home, so we’ve got extra office space in here so they don’t all have to be crowded in together at the same time. Just take their time and make sure that they continue to follow the processes that have been put in place.
SC: I think that’s a good point: Take care of yourself. It’s so easy to lose sight of that. If you're not leaving your house, there’s no gyms necessarily, or what have you.
SF: Yes, here the gyms are just starting to reopen. That’s going to be a process, too. I think I’m going to stay out of the gym for a little while. I’m going to be hiking and bike riding outside for a while. A lot of outside activities are going to be much healthier for us for a little longer.
SC: That make sense. That’s definitely what I’ve been hearing as well. Any silver linings or positives? I’m trying to end on a positive note so that we can walk away from these episodes with “This has been hard for us but it’s been a nice experience in an x, y, and z sort of way.” Anything you want to share?
SF: I think it has been difficult for people, but there are a couple of silver linings. I think we have learned that we can do more work from home than people thought that they could do. Video conferencing actually is a very good thing. Our company’s been doing it for a very long time with our clients as we present proposals and talk about reports. So people are learning how to use that technology as well. And I think all of that is good for us. We’re going to learn that we really can do work in a variety of settings that we just didn’t realize that people could do before.
I think, moving forward, the workplace will change to some extent, because I think a lot of people will continue to work from home at least part-time. We’ll move forward with that. The other thing that probably has helped us, I really see that, in the future, we certainly learned a lot more about our hygiene and protecting ourselves from transmissible diseases. I would hope that we carry that into the next flu season, the next cold season, so that perhaps we’ll see less transmission of the common colds and the common flu in the next season because we’ve learned more about that personal hygiene. Maybe have a little less illness all the way around as a result.
SC: Yes, take the 20-second hand wash past COVID-19.
SF: Continue it forever, and I think we will see less of the transmissible diseases in the future. At least that’s what I’m hoping for, if we continue it.
SC: Well, thanks so much, Silvia. I appreciate your time. How can people reach you if they want to follow up?
SF: Well, I would love for people to reach out if they have any questions. I can be reached at my email, which is just firstname.lastname@example.org, or my phone number is (916) 242-4140. They can reach either place.
SC: Awesome. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today. I look forward to hopefully meeting you sometime in person in the future.
SF: Great. Thank you, Stephanie. I appreciate the opportunity.
To learn more about the company, including the helpful content they’re sharing on their blog, check out forensicanalytical.com.
Editor’s note: Listen to all of the other interviews in CoatingsPro’s COVID-19 podcast series.