Bioenvironmental engineers across the Air Force are working to keep the workplace safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Col. Brian Peake, Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering associate corps chief, says bioenvironmental engineers are using their experience in exposures and risk mitigation to combat the spread of the disease.
“Bioenvironmental engineers can take our knowledge of exposure science and apply it to any environmental threat, like COVID-19,” said Peake. “We can take what we have done for decades to mitigate Airmen exposure.”
The aeromedical evacuation mission became a top priority as COVID-19 began to spread.
Bioenvironmental engineers within Air Mobility Command lent their expertise in exposure mitigation when the Air Force was tasked with moving COVID-19 patients.
The Air Force is using the Transportation Isolation System, which was created in 2014 during the Ebola epidemic, and adapted to move COVID-19 patients. The Transportation Isolation System is an infectious disease containment unit that fits inside cargo aircraft and reduces risk to aircrew while allowing for en route medical care.
A cross functional team led by Master Sgt. Michael Huller, AMC Bioenvironmental Engineer functional manager, constructed a disinfection concept of operations and training plan in only ten days in advance of the first mission.
“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were only a handful of people trained on Transportation Isolation System support,” said Col. Vincent Falls, Command Bioenvironmental Engineer, Air Mobility Command. “To expand this capability to move more patients, we had to develop plans to project this capability to multiple locations, and come up with procedures to properly disinfect and reuse the TIS.”
On April 10, the Air Force used the Transportation Isolation System for the first time to move three COVID-19 patients from Afghanistan. Bioenvironmental engineers were on the flight, working alongside aeromedical evacuation crews and critical care air transportation teams.
“As part of that Transportation Isolation System support team, we ensured it maintained its integrity, and diagnosed and fixed any issues that arose in flight,” said Maj. Somvang Xayarath, Deputy Command Bioenvironmental Engineer with AMC and the bioenvironmental engineer on the first mission.
Xayarath played a key role in the support planning. He ensured everything on the aircraft was disinfected properly after the mission, and helped the follow-on support team prepare the next mission.
After that first mission, AMC deployed 42 bioenvironmental engineer technicians to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, in preparation for additional missions across the globe.
“Aeromedical evacuation is usually not a primary mission for bioenvironmental engineers,” said Huller. “Because we are skilled in doing health risk assessments, industrial operations, and hygiene plans, we can transition and operate in this arena.”
The bioenvironmental engineers’ involvement in safely moving COVID-19 patients highlights their flexibility, applying their skillset and foundational knowledge to new and emerging threats.
“We always talk about every Airman a problem solver,” said Huller. “As bioenvironmental engineers, we are a career field of problem solvers. We were tasked with adapting one system originally designed to move Ebola patients for a new use, and we did that in ten days.”
Because there is a large aerosol hazard with COVID-19, bioenvironmental engineers are also considering how this impacts Airmen in otherwise safe workspaces where respiratory exposures are not usually hazardous. Bioenvironmental engineers are ensuring N95 masks are properly tested to meet regulatory requirements, and identifying ways workspaces can be made safer.
“We ensure N95 masks meet the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines,” said Falls. “We make sure that these masks are fit tested, that it has an appropriate seal on the user’s face, and that it works properly.”
To further safeguard Airmen, bioenvironmental engineers are also considering the use of high-efficiency particulate air filtration, or HEPA filtration. Bioenvironmental engineers are leading an initiative to develop filtration capability where it would be most effective.
“We usually take for granted that the air we breathe is safe,” said Peake. “COVID-19 puts us in new territory where we have to figure out ways we can protect Airmen working in tight quarters.”
From aeromedical evacuation, to air filtration and mask checks, bioenvironmental engineers are working around the clock to keep Airmen safe and the Air Force mission going.
“Bioenvironmental engineers provide highly reliable health risk expertise to protect Airmen from workplace hazards and ensure their readiness to support the mission,” said Chief Master Sgt. Curtis McGehee, Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering career field manager. “That is normal operations for us and we are applying this process to keep Airmen safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Adapted from original story by Shireen Bedi, Air Force Medical Service. Edited for context and format by Global Biodefense.