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Health Care Engineers Maintaining Building Safety & Saving Lives in a Pandemic


By Marisa Voelkel, BSN, MBA, CHSP, CHEP, engineer

I’ve worn a lot of hats during my career in health care.

I started out as a labor and delivery nurse in metro Atlanta. After a series of professional pivots, I ultimately found my passion after a week-long training in federal emergency management. Over the past 12 years, I managed environment of care, safety, security and emergency management operations in three different health care systems before I joined The Joint Commission.

These jobs all taught me that nurses, engineers and most other groups in health care have the same goals, even though our approaches are sometimes different. At the end of the day, we are all in the business of saving lives.

I have tremendous respect for every discipline in health care, but I believe engineers and individuals working on the maintenance of a health care organization are often the unsung heroes of the industry. This happens to be the theme of the American Society of Health Care Engineers’ National Health Care Facilities and Engineering Week 2020 from October 25-31. Health care engineers literally keep our buildings running.

Challenges During COVID-19
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic is an especially challenging time in health care engineering. 

Right now, airflow concerns dominate. Even though engineers do not work in direct patient care roles, many are conferring with infection control departments to determine access control points or fire controls.

Testing and maintenance issues also pose difficulties. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has allowed health care organizations to postpone some regularly scheduled maintenance and a re-start date remains undetermined. Vendors also have been avoiding entering organizations to perform required maintenance services. All of this has led engineers to worry that deferred maintenance could be compromising patient safety.

Fire drills represent additional concerns. Our accredited organizations are repeatedly asking how to drill while maintaining physical distance. They are relieved to learn they don’t have to pull the bell and congregate, rather they can orient staff to the fire response plan. We’re also getting a lot of questions on whether COVID-19 counts for The Joint Commission’s disaster drill requirements. (Hint: It counts if it’s documented.) After all, the spirit of the disaster drill requirement is to learn from real-world situations and the pandemic is a real learning opportunity.

Joint Commission Engineers
All of the new building and maintenance issues related to COVID-19 are keeping The Joint Commission’s seven full-time engineers busy. Even though we have cumulative decades of experience in safety, security, emergency management, medical equipment, facilities management and more, this situation is new for everyone.

Health care organizations still want to meet requirements but there is so much misinformation right now. Our Joint Commission engineers serve as a sounding board when surveyors have questions on whether or not a violation is citable. We pride ourselves on taking the time to look up code reference issues and review standards.

We’re here for our accredited organizations too. If you have a question about a standard, please submit it to us online. We know your engineers are dedicated to keeping facilities running safely during this pandemic and we are equally committed to providing the guidance to do so. We’ll get through this together. Happy Health Care Facilities and Engineering Week!

Marisa Voelkel is an engineer in the Standards Interpretation Group at The Joint Commission. In this role, she provides standards interpretation, reviews and processes survey reports, consults and provides educational programs for health care organizations and Life Safety Code surveyors, and serves as faculty for educational programs throughout the United States. She also supports the Environment of Care, Emergency Management and Life Safety chapters for all Joint Commission accreditation manuals. Voelkel has more than 13 years of health care experience having held director-level roles in safety, security and emergency management in three multi-state health care systems.