The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that indoor air has higher levels of pollutants than outdoor air, and consequently can pose environmentally related health problems. This is a serious concern for business owners, as indoor air quality (IAQ) has a direct impact on the health, comfort, well-being and productivity of employees. Furthermore, a report from the EPA to Congress reveals that when businesses improve indoor air quality, they can also increase productivity, decrease the number of days that employees miss work and save money on medical care.
Airtight building design, while reducing overhead, reduces the amount of outside air introduced into buildings. Furthermore, use of chemical products, supplies, equipment and pesticides increases employee exposure to poor air environments. This exposure may lead to health conditions such as sick building syndrome (SBS) and building related illness (BRI).
Understanding Sick Building Syndrome
A workplace is characterized as having problems with SBS when a substantial number of its occupants experience health and comfort troubles that can be related to working indoors. The reported symptoms do not follow the patterns of any particular illnesses, are difficult to trace to any specific source and relief from the symptoms tends to occur when leaving the facility. Employees may experience headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, dry or itchy skin, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and loss of concentration.
Building-Related Illnesses (BRI)
A workplace is characterized with BRI when a relatively small number of employees experience health problems. The symptoms associated with BRIs are similar to those of SBS and are often accompanied by physical signs identified by a physician or laboratory test. Sufferers of BRI may also experience upper respiratory irritation, skin irritations, chills, fever, cough, chest tightness, congestion, sneezing, runny nose, muscle aches and pneumonia. These symptoms may be caused by the following conditions brought on my indoor air pollutants: asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, multiple chemical sensitivity and Legionnaires’ Disease. Employees may not experience relief from symptoms when leaving the facility.
Causes of SBS and BRI
The IAQ problems that may cause SBS and/or BRI may include the following:
- Lack of Fresh Air
- If insufficient fresh air is introduced into occupied areas of the workplace, the environment can become stagnant and odors and contaminants can accumulate. This is the primary cause of SBS.
- Poorly Maintained or Poorly Operated Ventilation Systems
- Mechanical ventilation systems must be properly maintained and operated based on the original design or prescribed procedures. If systems are neglected, their ability to provide adequate IAQ decreases. For instance, when systems are missing or have overloaded filters, this can cause excess dust, pollen and cigarette smoke to enter occupied spaces, and can cause health problems.
- Disruption of Air Circulation Throughout Occupied Spaces
- The quantity of air in the building depends on the effectiveness of air distribution. If it is disrupted, blocked or otherwise cannot reach occupied areas, air can become stagnant. Walls, dropped ceiling tiles and other obstacles can divert the supply of air in occupied spaces.
- Poorly Regulated Temperature and Relative Humidity Levels
- If the temperature and/or relative humidity levels are too high or too low, employees may experience discomfort, loss of concentration, eye and throat irritation, dry skin, sinus headaches, nosebleeds and an inability to wear contact lenses. If relative humidity levels are too high, microbial contamination can build up and cause BRI.
- Indoor and Outdoor Sources of Contamination
- Chemical emissions can contribute to BRI and SBS from insulation, pesticides, wood products, synthetic plastics, new carpeting, glues, furnishings, paints, cleaning agents, roof renovations and contaminated air from exhaust stacks. Indoor contaminants may include radon, ozone, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ammonia, carbon monoxide, particulates, nitrogen and sulfur oxides and asbestos.
Correcting and Preventing IAQ Problems
Even if you do not own the building, there are many things you can do to improve the indoor air in your office.
- Maintain a good relationship with building management regarding indoor environmental issues.
- Revisit placement of office furniture and equipment to maximize air circulation, temperature and pollutant removal functions of the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
- Coordinate with building management when you share responsibility for design, operation and maintenance of the ventilation system.
- Establish a smoking policy to protect nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Avoid procedures and products that cause indoor air quality problems.
- Consider air quality when making purchasing decisions.
- Work with your building manager to ensure use of only necessary and appropriate pest control practices and, when possible, nonchemical methods.
- Work with building management and your contractor before you remodel to identify ways to keep occupant exposure to pollutants at a minimum and to ensure that the air distribution system is not disrupted.
- Encourage building management to develop a preventive indoor air quality management program as recommended by the EPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Eastern Insurance Group LLC knows how much you depend on your employees, and can help you ensure their health by taking measures to prevent employee illness. Contact us for more information on health insurance and how to maintain a safe and healthy workplace.