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Indoor air quality in offices and other work environments can be a problem.

These days, workers in many industries spend more time inside than they do outside. The average worker in an industrial environment and the average office worker both spend 40 hours each week indoors at work, and many then go home and spend more time inside. Because of the increasing amount of time American workers spend in buildings, it’s also very important that workplaces have high air quality.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) might seem like a strange concern, especially when the news is filled with reports of pollution and smog outdoors around the world. When people spend so much time inside, though, the greater threat can be the indoor air they breathe all day long.

If your business operations are located indoors, stop and think about it. Do you know where the air in your building comes from? You might know where the nearest vent is, but just because air blows out of it doesn’t mean that air is clean. Machines, work processes and even the perfume of co-workers can pollute the air, and the air circulation system itself can get dirty. That’s why it’s important for employers and facility managers to take reports of air quality concerns seriously and perform routine maintenance.

Let’s take a look at the details of air quality issues and what companies can do to avoid employee health problems related to air quality.

Health Effects of Poor Air Quality

Poor air quality impacts workers in many ways, and some workers may have extreme symptoms while others experience no symptoms at all. This can make identifying air quality issues challenging. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), common symptoms related to IAQ are breathing problems like cough, shortness of breath and sinus congestion, as well as other issues like headache, fatigue, eye irritation, skin irritation, nausea and dizziness. In some cases, serious air contaminants can also cause long-term health problems like Legionnaires’ disease and cancer. Consequently, all complaints about air quality should be taken seriously.

Sources of Indoor Air Quality Issues 

Paint, chemicals and other materials can pollute indoor air. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Case

OSHA explains that IAQ issues can be the result of a single factor or many factors. Common sources of IAQ problems range from poor building design to materials used in the facility. Consider the following possible sources:

  • Structural problems (related to the roof, foundation, etc.)
  • Improperly maintained heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems
  • Moisture/dampness (often related to leaking or flooding)
  • Overcrowding (too many building occupants can mean too much carbon dioxide)
  • Outdoor air pollutants getting inside (like vehicle exhaust)
  • Use of cleaning products and chemicals
  • Use of aerosol products
  • Use of mechanical equipment
  • Off-gassing of materials in the building (like furniture or carpet)
  • Occupant activities (like smoking or wearing strong perfume)
  • Building renovations
  • Improper temperature and humidity levels

While all of these possible sources can contribute to IAQ problems, keep in mind that ventilation is often the culprit. NIOSH has found that ventilation problems are responsible for 52 percent of IAQ issues that they investigated, so your first step when assessing air quality should be to look at the building’s HVAC system.

Common Contaminants

The sources listed above are often the culprits of IAQ problems, but the contaminants they put into the air can vary. These contaminants do fall into three main categories, though: biological, chemical and particle. All three can cause the symptoms discussed earlier.

Danger Sign

Carbon monoxide is an air contaminant that should be taken very seriously.

OSHA lists some of the most common indoor air pollutants, which include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, ozone, radon, asbestos, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and microorganisms (like mold or pollen), among others. Some of these contaminants quickly cause symptoms, while others only lead to problems down the road. Carbon monoxide exposure, for example, will quickly cause dizziness, headache and nausea, while radon, which is low-level radiation emitted from the soil beneath buildings, can increase the risk of lung cancer if the exposure occurs frequently.

How to Prevent IAQ Issues 

As with many workplace hazards, the best plan for dealing with IAQ problems is to prevent them. Employers should take some key steps to keep air quality at a desirable level.

First, they should work with the people in charge of facility management to make sure the HVAC system is properly maintained. As many air quality issues are tied to this system, keeping it in good working order is important.

cleaning chemicals, housekeeping

Cleaning chemicals often pollute indoor air.

Next, companies should consider the everyday state of the building. The temperature should be between 68 and 78 degrees, and the humidity should be between 30 and 60 percent. These parameters help keep the air at comfortable levels for employees. Also consider daily cleaning practices; are cleaning chemicals used? Make sure areas that are cleaned daily are adequately ventilated. Don’t forego cleaning for fear the chemicals will pollute the air, though, as dirt and dust buildup can also cause air quality issues. Another thing to consider: the building’s pressure. You’ll want to keep the building at a slightly positive pressure so air escapes when exterior doors are open. This keeps outdoor contaminants from coming in.

If the building is impacted by an event like a strong storm or a flood, check to make sure there hasn’t been any water damage. Damp areas can lead to mold, which is an air contaminant best avoided.

Finally, if any renovations take place at the facility, keep the building’s occupants away from the affected areas. Renovations come with all sorts of dust, dirt and building materials, which can all impact air quality. To keep workers safe, you may have to relocate them to other work areas while the changes occur.

Dealing with Employee Complaints

As mentioned earlier, employee complaints about IAQ issues should be taken seriously, even if only one or two employees report symptoms. Employers should interview the affected employees and then do an inspection to assess possible sources of air contaminants (consider the possible sources from the list above). You may have to collect air samples to look for specific contaminants, but usually it will not come to that. You can try to determine possible causes and make adjusts to see if the situation improves first. According to NIOSH:

The IAQ investigation is often a repetitive cycle of information-gathering, hypothesis formation, and hypothesis testing.

To help formulate hypotheses, look for patterns in symptoms (is everyone dizzy?), timing patterns (do the symptoms only happen in the afternoons?) and spatial patterns (are the affected employees all working in a certain area?). You should also take time to observe the directions of air movement, as they could be contributing factors to the problem.

As with any hazard, you’ll want to seek out engineering controls when possible. Controlling the air contaminant at the source is often a good option, which can be done through the use of physical barriers or substitutions. You can also take steps to improve ventilation in the facility. When these options aren’t feasible, air filtration may be necessary.

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What Workers Can Do 

While employers can control the air quality in a facility to a certain extent, they can’t always control every factor that could contribute to IAQ issues. Asking workers to take certain steps to aid in the process is a good idea. Remind them:

  • Avoid using/bringing products to the workplace that have strong odors
  • Store food properly
  • Dispose of trash quickly
  • Don’t block air vents
  • Maintain office plants properly (if applicable)
  • Alert facility managers to any potential air quality issues

Air quality can impact everyone in a facility—managers, line workers, office workers, janitorial staff—but it’s a hazard that is often overlooked. OSHA does not have a specific standard related to indoor air quality, but it can use the General Duty Clause to enforce proper management of air quality. California and New Jersey also have state specific OSHA regulations that employers must comply with. But the bottom line is that with preventative measures air quality can be managed in a facility fairly easily. Employers just need to take the time to do so.

Don’t forget, though, that if your facility contains dangerous air contaminants that cannot be avoided, respiratory protection may be required.