The commercials are eye-catching, and no expense was spared: celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga talk about how seeing the WELL Health-Safety seal outside a business makes people feel safer going inside.
But is there really good science behind that seal?
The concept of certifying buildings for meeting certain standards isn’t new; LEED green building certification, for instance, started in the 1990s. But the notion may have broader appeal as the country grapples with how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while helping the economy rebound.
The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) launched its original WELL Building Standard in 2014 after a years-long pilot. The company was planning to roll out a 2.0 version of the standard in early 2020, but quickly pivoted when COVID-19 hit, Jessica Cooper, chief commercial officer at IWBI, told MedPage Today.
Since then, high-profile organizations like JPMorgan Chase, the New York Yankees, and the Dallas Cowboys have turned to the company to obtain its WELL Health-Safety Rating, which launched at the end of June last year. In April, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the NIH, said that it had become the first federal agency to secure the seal.
The cost to do so runs in the thousands of dollars, with incremental pricing benefits for the more buildings an organization seeks to certify. Regardless of the outlay, the seal is now in 87 countries, at some 12,000 locations, covering more than 1 billion square feet of real estate, Cooper said.
And even businesses that were uninterested before have taken stock.
IWBI is well aware that demand for its its rating system is likely to rise as a result of the pandemic. In fact, it was the company’s existing customers who first turned to IWBI for advice in navigating the current public health crisis, Cooper said.
After developing the WELL Health-Safety Rating in the first half of last year, IWBI embarked on a heightened marketing campaign, focused more on reaching the consumers that frequent businesses rather than just the businesses themselves.
“The pandemic has shed a light on how buildings [can have an impact on] human health and safety,” Cooper said. Coming out of the crisis, there will continue to be a focus on third-party ratings, she said.
What It Measures
The WELL Health-Safety Rating includes more than 20 metrics across the core areas of cleaning and sanitization procedures, emergency preparedness programs, health service resources, air and water quality management, and stakeholder engagement and communication. IWBI says that a minimum of 15 of the metrics must be met to achieve the rating.
IWBI built upon its existing WELL Building Standard to develop the framework, but it also set up a task force aimed at determining how it could help in the fight against COVID-19, Cooper said. The company sought the advice of more than 600 public health experts, virologists, architects, designers, and other authorities. And it turned to guidance issued by the World Health Organization, CDC, ASTM International (formerly, the American Society for Testing and Materials), the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, and other agencies.
Among the metrics tailored to address the spread of COVID-19 are assessing ventilation, and assessing and maintaining air treatment systems. Requirements include having a qualified engineer providing an assessment of the highest efficiency particle filters that can be installed with the business’s mechanical system as well as the capacity of the current system to utilize ultraviolet germicidal irradiation devices.
Other metrics include those to reduce the spread of disease via respiratory droplets on surfaces and promote social distancing, Cooper said.
Once a business obtains the WELL Health-Safety Seal, it must reapply on an annual basis.
On March 30, the NIEHS, located in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating.
“Our science is really about the connection between people and what people come into contact with,” Chris Long, associate director for management and executive officer at NIEHS, told MedPage Today. “That environment is air and water and land, but it’s also indoors and materials that we touch, and germs that we share with each other, or don’t.”
The WELL Health-Safety Rating wasn’t the first certification NIEHS has pursued. NIEHS has a net zero energy building that makes more energy than it uses, Long said, and it’s also LEED platinum certified for its green features. In November of last year, the WELL Health-Safety Rating came to its attention when facility engineer Alison Karver attended a webinar for it.
“As I was listening to this webinar, I started to really realize that this would be an outstanding way to comprehensively show our employees and show our visitors that we take their health and safety as seriously as we take that of the rest of the world through our research,” Karver told MedPage Today. That held especially true as NIEHS began thinking about bringing employees and visitors back to its facilities.
Karver said it took from November through March to complete the process. There were several metrics that were more infectious disease-related than others, such as enhanced cleaning measures, reduced surface touch areas, and ventilation.
Being a laboratory, it only took relatively simple upgrades for NIEHS to boost all of its filtration systems to MERV 13 or MERV 14, extremely high filtration rates. NIEHS is also using UV light to cut down on bacteria and viruses that could enter its air stream.
The evaluation process was completed virtually, Karver said. NIEHS was able to upload all of the information online, including very specific photographic evidence. Once the agency uploaded the requested documentation, it was submitted to a third-party consultant, and NIEHS received a response back in several weeks. NIEHS needed to beef up some of its documentation, and after resubmitting the information, received the rating.
The cost was about $5,000 to register 10 buildings, Karver said. However, both she and Long noted that costs to the agency may have been higher if many of the requirements weren’t already in place.
When asked whether NIEHS signing on gives the WELL Health-Safety Seal Rating more credence, Long said that NIEHS isn’t endorsing WELL, rather WELL is endorsing the agency.
“But,” Long said, “we know enough about it to think that it makes sense.”
The WELL Health-Safety Seal doesn’t replace industry standards or regulations, such as OSHA, ASHRAE, or National Fire Codes, he said. “This is just a more holistic look at us and how we operate.”
“We think it’s kind of a bonus and it helps communicate our commitment to these things,” Long added. “But, we’re not in a position to endorse anything.”
Not Just About ‘Flashy Things’
The WELL Health-Safety Rating covers quite a number of areas, said Mark Cunningham-Hill, MD, medical director at the Northeast Business Group on Health. The nonprofit, employer-led coalition focuses on helping its members achieve quality and value when it comes to healthcare benefits and services.
One consideration when it comes to achieving COVID-19 safety is that it’s not just about the building itself, but the number of people in it and what they’re doing, Cunningham-Hill said. For instance, ventilation considerations would be different between a building in which a group of opera singers convened and one in which office workers sat typing at their desks.
In principle, a business having a WELL Health-Safety Rating or a similar credential probably means its building is better than ones that couldn’t meet those levels, he said. And for employers, “it certainly might help with attraction and retention.”
Martin Cohen, ScD, of the University of Washington School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, concurred.
“It looks like it’s very thorough in terms of what they’re evaluating,” Cohen said. Metrics cover air and water quality as well as lighting, how people are moving throughout the building, and nutrition, among other areas, he noted. It’s a very holistic approach. The criteria is reasonable and based on science, he said.
Regardless of COVID-19, if buildings are committing to these types of metrics, they’re going to have healthier, safer and happier people using them, he said.
“Like anything, you’re relying on people to do the right thing [in between evaluations],” Cohen said. “People speed between the speed traps.”
Erica Mobley, vice president of administration at The Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit that publishes healthcare quality and safety data, said it’s “an opportune time for companies like this to be promoting this sort of certification. There are two or three that are doing a very similar protocol … and I certainly see why they feel this is a very valid business model.”
This is something that administrators can certainly consider, she said, but she noted that it’s important for people to remember that it’s not just about the “flashy things.” Basic protocols like handwashing, in many cases, can be most effective, she said.
As for those expensive celebrity endorsements, Cooper said the company “wanted to invest in additional market awareness around the topic.”
“Signing celebrity support was a must in order to help the message resonate and reach a broad set of people,” she said.