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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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Occupational health and safety apps are on the rise - and many are free.

Occupational health and safety apps are on the rise – and many are free.

As technology continues to evolve, workplace safety needs to adapt as well.

That’s why cell-phone apps designed for oh&s functions have become important in the marketplace.

New programs for Smartphones and tablets can assist with all kinds of tasks, ranging from safety inspections and incident reports to emergency alerts and contacting remote colleagues when alone and in danger.

“Lives are at stake,” says Matthew Ross, media manager with ProntoForms Corporation, a mobile-solution company based in Kanata, Ontario. “People absolutely need to be able to process these types of info as fast as possible.”

ProntoForms has created an app that sends and receives forms and vital work information quickly.

“With the push of a button, the info is sent to wherever you like,” Ross explains. “You can send to a variety of cloud services.”

Such forms could include inspection checklists, safety lists, data on hazardous materials, action reports and even statements from accident witnesses, he adds.

“We’ve got such incredible positive feedback from clients because the processing is so much faster.”

Apart from increased safety, a side benefit of the ProntoForms app is a sharp reduction in paperwork.

“People are looking to help make their lives easier and make their jobs easier,” says Jason Grouette, business manager of the personal safety division for 3M Canada in London, Ontario.

3M Canada provides a practical new app that assists employees assigned to buy safety equipment for their companies, including distributors, health and safety managers and some end users.

Simply called Safety, the app gives the user instant access to more than 2,400 workplace safety products available from 3M.

Honeywell Safety Products in Morristown, New Jersey offers a similar product, the Media App, which gives users access to product information and learning resources on personal protective equipment available from Honeywell.

So why have workplace safety apps become more prevalent?

“We are in a different world that we were a decade ago,” says Grouette. “People have an expectation of finding answers very quickly and addressing problems quickly.”

“It’s driven by a bunch of things,” explains Ross. “The technology on Smartphones and tablets has gotten stronger and more powerful. So it has enabled us to include better features, time-savings, cost savings, high-productivity features. Another thing is the BYOD trend – bring-your-own-device trend – in businesses, so companies are more comfortable with employees using their own devices.”

Ross points out that the construction and oil and gas industries tend to supply ProntoForms’ biggest customers for health and safety products. But restaurant chains also use the ProntoForms app for information about cleanliness and other oh&s issues, he adds.

“The speed of data collection and processing is something that is invaluable in the industry.”

Grouette lists oil and gas, mining and manufacturing as sectors that benefit highly from 3M’s products, including the Safety app.

Many safety apps, including some of the aforementioned ones, are available to employers and workers for free.

Source: OHS Canada. This article has been edited for length.

Concerned about health and safety at the workplace? Breathing polluted air over a long period of time has been linked with a wide range of health problems. Electrocorp offers industrial and commercial indoor air cleaners with activated carbon and HEPA air filters to remove dangerous airborne substances. Contact Electrocorp for more information: Call 1-866-667-0297 or write to sales@electrocorp.net.

New research shows air pollution might make you bad at your job

Fine particles can go deep into your lungs.
Fine particles can go deep into your lungs.

In 2011, researchers at UC San Diego and Columbia University were the first to demonstrate a link between air pollution and reduced productivity among outdoor agricultural workers.

Now those researchers are back with a new study, entitled “Particulate Pollution and the Productivity of Pear Packers.”

The study shows, for the first time, a significant link between air pollution and the productivity of indoor workers.

The pollutant in question is fine particulate matter, or PM2.5. It’s notable for its tiny size (less than 1/30th the width of a human hair), which allows it to infiltrate deep into your lungs and potentially even your bloodstream, where it can cause all sorts of health problems.

The authors note that PM2.5 can easily enter buildings: “Unlike other pollutants, which either remain outside or rapidly break down once indoors, going inside may do little to reduce one’s exposure to PM2.5.”

To figure out how this affected indoor workers, the authors drew on data from an indoor pear-packing factory in northern California.

“We focused on pear packing for this study since it was located near an air pollution monitor and paid workers piece rate, which allowed us to measure individual worker productivity on a daily level,” author Joshua Graff Zivin told me.

What they found was that every 10-microgram per cubic meter increase in PM2.5 levels decreased worker productivity by 0.6%, as measured by the number pear boxes packed by each worker.

Since workers were paid piecemeal, this translated to a decrease of roughly 41 cents per hour, per 10 micrograms of PM2.5 relationship between worker productivity and air pollution.

Moreover, the effect increased at higher PM2.5 levels: levels between 15 and 20 micrograms reduced earnings by $0.53 per hour, levels between 20 and 25 micrograms decrease earnings by $1.03 per hour, and when levels exceed 25 micrograms/cubic meter earnings shrink by $1.88 per hour.

One key point is that these levels are all well below current U.S. air quality standards for PM2.5, which stand at 35 micrograms/m3. The U.S. didn’t even start regulating this pollutant until 1997.

Across the U.S., PM2.5 levels routinely cross this 35 microgram threshold every day. Airnow.gov, an EPA website that tracks air quality in U.S. cities, is currently showing PM2.5 levels of 69 micrograms in Atlanta, 72 in Cleveland, and a whopping 140 in Albuquerque, NM.

If those figures seem high be thankful you don’t live in Beijing, where PM2.5 levels topped 250 micrograms today.

One major implication of the study is that reductions of PM2.5 can have significant economic benefits. The authors estimate that across the entire U.S. manufacturing sector, reductions in PM2.5 since 1997 has led to an aggregate labor savings of $19.5 billion – a previously-unknown benefit of fine particulate regulation.

The larger question, of course, is whether these findings extend even to workers in retail and other regular office settings.

“We are very curious about this,” Graff Zivin told me. “Whether more cognitive indoor activities are subject to similar effects is an important area for future research, but there is certainly a plausible channel through which these could occur.”

Source: Washington Post

Poor indoor air quality can not only affect work performance, but also workers’ health and well-being as well as morale. For improved IAQ, Electrocorp offers industrial and commercial air cleaners with activated carbon and HEPA, which effectively remove fine particles, odors, chemicals, fumes, mold, bacteria and viruses from the ambient air.

The wide range of units includes air cleaners for offices, air cleaners for chemical processing plants, air cleaners for welding fume extraction, air cleaners for hospital and health care, and many more workplace uses.

Contact Electrocorp for more information and a free consultation.

 

Study shows chemical is absorbed through skin

Study examines BPA exposure in cashiers.

Study examines BPA exposure in cashiers.

Store and ATM receipts may be adding to the exposure of people to the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), a new study from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center has found.

The study, published Tuesday in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests the chemical, used as a coating on thermal receipt paper, can be absorbed through the skin.

The finding is important because scientists previously believed BPA’s primary path into the human body was by eating or drinking food packaged in cans lined with or plastic bottles manufactured with BPA.

The federal Food and Drug Administration says hundreds of studies have concluded that BPA is safe at the low levels that occur in some foods, although the agency is continuing its review of and research into the chemical.

BPA is used in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. In humans, BPA can interfere with the production, secretion, function and elimination of hormones.

It’s linked to a number of potential health problems in animals and humans, including obesity, impaired neurological development in children and lowered reproductive function. A 2009 University of Cincinnati study concluded that BPA could be harmful to the heart, especially for women.

Exposures faced by store clerks, who spend their days repeatedly touching BPA-laden receipts, are likely to be higher than people who only occasionally handle receipts. The study, which was designed to simulate what clerks do, also shows that gloves would shield clerks from any additional exposure.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s recruited 24 volunteers in 2011 to study the effects of the receipts. “We tried to simulate what a clerk does” all day long in dealing with customers and handling receipts, said Dr. Shelley Ehrlich, a obstetrician/gynecologist trained as an environmental and perinatal epidemiologist and author of the study.

Ehrlich, who works in Cincinnati Children’s division of biostatistics and epidemiology and also is an assistant professor at UC’s department of environmental health, said the researchers measured the levels of BPA in the volunteers’ urine.

Roughly four in five of the participants had BPA in the blood before the trial; once they had handled receipts, all of the volunteers showed levels of BPA. In addition, the volunteers’ levels of BPA continued to rise for eight hours once they had stopped handling the receipts.

The study’s goal was to point out how receipts can add to the total BPA exposure of the general population from a source “that may have been overlooked,” as well as revealing that clerks face higher levels of BPA because of their jobs, Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich noted that the study, funded by a grant from the Harvard School of Public Health/National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety’s Education and Research Center, should be followed by a larger scale study to confirm the findings and evaluate the clinical implications of chronic exposure to BPA.

A representative for the American Chemistry Council criticized the study for being “far too limited to determine if the handling of cash register receipt paper results in significant BPA exposure.”

But the spokesman for the industry trade group – Steven Hentges, who is a member of the council’s polycarbonate/BPA global group – said the study “does suggest that consumer exposures to BPA, including occasional contact with thermal paper receipts, are well below safe intake levels established by government regulators around the world.

“The BPA exposure levels measured in participants of this study appear to be even lower than the levels found to cause no adverse effects in recent comprehensive research conducted in FDA’s laboratory,” Hentges said in an e-mail statement.

Source: Cincinnati.com

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Workplace injury and illness can be costly.

Work injuries and sick days cost companies $250 billion each year, according to a study by J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health services at the University of California at Davis.

Much of the cost of being absorbed by Medicare, Medicaid and insurance provided by employers, the researcher says, but the numbers mean that workplace injury and illness are responsible for direct and indirect costs for cancer, diabetes and strokes (taking up $31 billion, $76 billion and $187 billion respectively).

Occupational health should be a more pressing concern in the workforce, Leigh says in an article on BusinessNewsDaily.com.

With most people between the ages of 22 and 65 spending 40 percent of their time at work, the potential for health risk is high and keeps on growing, he says.

The figures are based on occupational injury and illness data from 2007, which recorded the costs shouldered by workers, and Leigh also factored in underreported injuries and illnesses.

By taking the estimated number of cases and multiplying that by the average cost per case, he got the final estimation of $250 billion.

This research was published in a December issue of the Milbank Quarterly: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Population Health and Health Policy.

Source: Business News Daily 

Prevention is best when it comes to occupational health and safety

Risk awareness, appropriate safety measures and action plans are extremely important to keep workers safe and healthy and to keep costs down.

One major part of occupational health and safety is indoor air quality, which is often overlooked, but can become a huge contributor to workplace illness and injuries.

Most buildings have some IAQ problems. The solutions for better indoor air quality include source control, ventilation and air cleaning.

A good air cleaner with the right amount of filtration media and the right type of filters can help keep the air clean. For example,activated carbon is the most important filter media for gaseous pollutants and odors, while high-dust environments require an effective particle or bag filter.

Electrocorp specializes in air cleaners for commercial and industrial applications and offers an extensive product line that incorporates

Contact Electrocorp for more information and recommendations based on your IAQ concern.

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