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Breathing contaminated air poses an occupational health and safety threat

Over the past few decades, there have been many improvements in offices when it comes to indoor air quality. Remember when tobacco smoke clouds gathered over desks and cubicles in the not-too-distant past?

Thankfully, smoking in buildings has been banned and many office managers now have policies in place that cover cleaning schedules and personal care products, among other things. New construction buildings are often well insulated and maintained.

Still, energy-efficient construction doesn’t necessarily equal clean air, as millions of workers in North America have found out. Many office workers feel unwell or sick in the office, making indoor air quality a major concern that affects productivity, absenteeism and overall well-being.

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Spending a lot of time in polluted office air can be bad for your health and well-being.

In fact, the EPA says that lost productivity and medical care due to poor indoor air quality results in tens of billions of dollars lost for the economy.

What causes bad office air?

The sources for poor indoor air quality in the office are varied and manifold. They can arise in older as well as in newer office buildings, depending on construction, maintenance, history, building occupants and much more.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says one of the most common issues in office buildings is the heating and ventilation system, especially if it is not properly maintained or insufficient for the size of the building or the number of occupants in the building.

The HVAC system may lack the power to draw in sufficient amounts of outdoor air for the right number of air exchanges, for example, allowing air contaminants to build up indoors.

Other IAQ troublemakers include:

  • Construction materials used in the building (including particle boards, glues, office furnishings, fiberglass and VOC-releasing materials such as carpets and paints)
  • An increase in the number of workers in the office building (this is often a concern with startups or rapidly growing companies)
  • An increase in indoor air contaminants due to mold, bacteria, viruses, chemicals, dusts or gases
  • Poorly regulated temperature and humidity – high humidity can cause mold growth.
  • Workplace cleaning products, pesticides, disinfectants and similar products that pollute indoor air with volatile organic compounds and toxic gases
  • Modern office equipment such as large office printers, computers and photocopiers
  • Outdoor air pollution that enters the building and is allowed to build up indoors

How does it affect workers?

As usual with indoor air quality concerns, not everyone reacts to contaminants the same way. Some office workers are really bothered by changes in smell, temperature or noise level, for example, while others don’t seem to notice.

However, if there are high levels of indoor air contaminants that affect office workers, then these workers often report one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Irritated and dry eyes, nose, throat, and skin
  • A recurring headache
  • Seemingly unfounded tiredness and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath (and higher risk of asthma attacks)
  • Hypersensitivity and allergies
  • Sinus congestion
  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

These symptoms may not be noticeable right away, but most people report them after a few hours at work. Of course, the symptoms may also be related to other health problems, but a good indicator of an indoor air quality issue is if those suffering from symptoms report feeling better when they leave the office building or when they are away for a longer period of time.

What to do if you suspect polluted air at the office

Even though office workers are protected under the occupational health and safety guidelines that apply to all employed individuals, office air quality is proving tough to regulate.

Many of the occupational exposure limits for dust or chemicals are supposed to protect workers from illness or health effects in industrial settings where they may be exposed to high levels of pollutants. These exposure limit guidelines are not suited to office settings, where exposure levels may be lower yet more long-term, and involving a variety of pollutants..

Common sense says long-term exposure to a variety of harmful air pollutants should be just as — if not more — dangerous than occasional exposure to higher levels of the same pollutant, but authorities do not have enough information on the health effects of several pollutants put together to finalize occupational guidelines for the office.

So indoor air quality concerns at the office are difficult to prove and difficult to resolve. But is it hopeless? Not at all.

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Make sure the HVAC system is checked and maintained.

If you suspect poor indoor air quality at the office, there are many things you can do to help diagnose and treat the problem.

  1. If you are experiencing symptoms yourself, keep track of them and save a record to show your safety officer, supervisor or other applicable person.
  2. Work together with the building manager and supervisors to look for possible causes
  3. Make sure the ventilation system is checked and maintained properly. Does it remove or dilute odors and contaminants with exhaust fans? Does it distribute acceptable levels of outdoor air to all workers? Is it set up to control pressure relationships between rooms (for example, bathrooms and kitchens should be maintained at negative pressure to contain any smells, while computer rooms should be maintained at positive pressure to avoid a buildup of dust)
  4. Initiate a survey to gather more information about possible sources and causes
  5. Do a walk-through in the building to pinpoint possible sources of air pollution
  6. Use your nose as an indicator. A musty smell could mean a humidity-related problem that can cause or exacerbate allergies. A chemical smell might be formaldehyde or another chemical, which can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. A solvent smell can cause allergy symptoms, dizziness and headache and is often caused by VOCs. A dusty or chalky smell (or wet cement) can cause respiratory problems, eye, nose, skin and throat irritation, coughing and sneezing and it often related to fine particle pollution and a problem with the humidification system. Noticeable body odor may be caused by overcrowding or a low ventilation rate and complaints often include headaches, tiredness and stuffiness.
  7. Get the air tested by a qualified professional with air sampling and air monitoring
  8. Make sure that everyone does their best to improve IAQ: Do not block any air vents, store food properly and dispose of garbage regularly; clean with non-toxic products; avoid perfumes and similar products; educate workers so that no one is accidentally contributing to poor IAQ.
  9. Plan renovations with IAQ in mind
  10. Report any water leaks immediately and have them fixed as soon as possible.

Poor indoor air quality can seriously affect productivity, morale and worker’s well-being.

It is important to address any IAQ issues promptly and to fix the problem.

IAQ professionals and health authorities alike remind us that indoor air quality is a shared responsibility that requires cooperation and swift action from facility managers, owners, occupants, personnel and supervisors.

Prevention is always better than treatment.

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