The Role of Engineers in Containing COVID-19

The Battle Behind the Frontline

Leon Wasser, MBA, P.Eng.

Role Of Engineer

The iron ring that Canadian professional Engineers wear is a personal emblem that serves as a constant reminder to members of our profession, and to others, of the obligation we have assumed to safeguard the public through our vocation. Only Canadian engineers wear iron rings – they are not used by our professional colleagues anywhere else marking it as a uniquely national treasure. For those who aren’t aware, the Canadian engineering iron ring is worn as a reminder about the tragedy and loss of life due to the collapse of the Quebec City bridge in 1907 which resulted from engineering design error. Following this calamity, Canada’s engineering community instituted a unique ceremony symbolically incorporating the material used to build the fallen Quebec City bridge. Wearing the iron ring is designed to serve as a reminder of the critical need for us to maintain a high standard of excellence and care in all the professional work we undertake.  In many respects, professional engineers are at the forefront of assessing and mitigating many types of risk. The reason for highlighting the iron ring in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic is that behind the frontlines of the healthcare system, engineers play a key and fundamental, but barely recognized role in the fight against the Coronavirus.

The Role of Engineers in Building Cleaning and Disinfection Procedures

Engineers are needed to establish and maintain the required cleaning and disinfection procedures for buildings. They specify the appropriate products and equipment to be used, and the procedures and schedules to be followed and maintained. In this pandemic, where the pathogen is spread by a combination of airborne droplets and aerosols and by further transmission by high-touch fomite surfaces, facility disinfection is critical to limiting infection spread. Where possible, engineers use computerized maintenance management systems CMMS) to plan, schedule, record and report on these critically important activities. It appears likely that in some of the facilities with the greatest numbers of infections, that inadequate regular disinfection may have been a contributing factor that should be investigated.

The Role of Engineers in Building System Maintenance and Operations

Engineers are required to ensure that all building systems are operating safely and efficiently including the plumbing, electrical and heating ventilation  and air conditioning (HVAC) systems as well as elevators and other mechanical systems.  The role of engineers in building maintenance is so critical that in certain sectors, such as hospitals and large facilities, additional certification is required to work in these key operations. Recent concerns have been raised about the risk of virus spread into other building areas through transmission by virus contaminated air through building ventilation systems. Most specifically, questions have been raised about whether air is adequately exhausted and dispersed instead of recirculated elsewhere in the building presenting additional infection risk. Engineers understand, for instance, that building areas that need to contain contaminants, whether from infection or dangerous fumes, need to be maintained in negative pressure to prevent dispersion in to other building areas. Only engineers understand the ductwork and other HVAC system design elements to determine and address the risk in this area.

The Role of Engineers in Building System Maintenance and Operations

Trained professional engineers are qualified to design, assess and manage complex building systems. They are the experts in evaluating the adequacy and safety of these operations including plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems and other operations. Failure in any of these systems can impact all the activities of building occupants. It is suspected that problems in some of these systems may have been contributing factors in problems experienced during the current pandemic. Larger building systems including hospitals, high-rise buildings and large shopping malls also rely on complex automated Smart Building technologies that need trained engineers to ensure smooth operations. This reality that will become more apparent as the planning proceed to re-occupy these facilities approaches. Professional engineers will need to have a key role in this critically important process.

The Role of Engineers in Pandemic Control

The importance of engineering to pandemic control was extensively researched during the massive cholera epidemic of the mid-nineteenth century when careful research determined that this disease was water bourne, and by creating an effective and controlled water distribution system including indoor plumbing the risk of infection from cholera could be virtually eliminated. From that point onward, starting with the United Kingdom, regulated indoor plumbing began to become the norm for cities and other communities. As a result of this implementation of wide-scale engineered systems, numerous health factors improved dramatically in the areas where indoor plumbing was deployed. This is but one example of the positive role that engineers can play in public policy issues.

The Role of Professional Engineers in Product Design & Manufacturing

One more role of engineering is product design and manufacturing. Part of the solution to COVID-19 is the need to design and then manufacture a wide variety of products to mitigate the effects of the disease and to protect us generally. Technology innovation is one of the key areas of activity for engineers generally, but the central and fundamental role as technology creators is of paramount importance at times like we are experiencing. Since the pandemic began, engineers have been at the forefront of the development and large scale manufacturing and deployment of all types of critically important products including ventilators, protective face visors and acrylic units to protect retail cashiers and customers.

The Need to Consult Professional Engineers about COVID-19

The current COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many risk factors as we race to contain this dangerously transmissible pathogen. Professional engineers have a key role to play in containing this virus and mitigating risk factors. As we begin to plan the resumption of normal community activities, which will require the re-occupancy of our buildings and facilities, there is an even greater onus to assess the safety of these facilities for use by the public. A key element of this process must be to identify and then contain all possible risk factors in our facilities. It is clear that although to date we have been relying heavily on physicians and public health officials to fight COVID-19 there is now, more than ever, a need to consult Canada’s engineering community to assess, address and mitigate the public health risk of our buildings and facilities.

Leon Wasser, MBA, P.Eng.

Wasser Resources Inc.


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