Health and productivity can take a hit in a workplace with poor air quality. Here are some things to look out for.
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is essential for a healthy office environment. However, as modern buildings have become more efficient, they have also become more airtight, increasing the potential for poor IAQ.
Alarming study from Harvard
In a 2015 collaborative study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University, it was discovered that people who work in well-ventilated offices have significantly higher cognitive function scores when responding to a crisis or developing a strategy.
For six days, 24 participants including architects, designers, programmers, engineers, creative marketing professionals, and managers worked in a controlled office environment at Syracuse University. They were exposed to various simulated building conditions including a conventional office environment environment with high VOC concentration, “green” conditions with enhanced ventilation and conditions with artificially increased levels of CO2.
It was discovered that cognitive performance scores for the participants who worked in the green environment were on average double those of the participants who worked in conventional environments.
Physiological effects of poor IAQ
Apart from reduced cognitive abilities, poor air quality at a workplace can cause more palpable symptoms like allergic reactions, physical fatigue, headaches and eye and throat irritation.
Financially speaking, poor IAQ can be costly to a business. Health problems like respiratory issues, headaches and sinus infections can lead to higher levels of absenteeism as well as presenteeism.
Let’s now identify the main sources of poor air quality at the office:
A building’s location can often influence the type and amount of indoor pollutants. Close proximity to a highway may be a source of dust and soot particles. Also, buildings located on previous industrial sites or an elevated water table can be subjected to damp and water leaks, as well as chemical pollutants.
Finally, if there’s renovation activity occurring in the building or nearby, dust and other construction material by-products may circulate through the building’s ventilation system.
Asbestos was a popular material for insulation and fireproofing for many years, so it can still found in a variety of materials like thermoplastic and vinyl floor tiles, and bitumen roofing materials.
Asbestos doesn’t pose a threat unless disturbed, for example during remodelling or adapting. It’s the fibres that are responsible for asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer. Once the fibres are released into the air, they are easily inhaled and although they won’t cause damage right away, there’s still no cure for asbestos-related diseases.
Although asbestos is now banned, it’s still present in many public buildings around the world. According to the WHO, an estimated 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos in the workplace.
Even if you work or live in a newer building, asbestos exposure is still a possibility. In 2016, asbestos was found in the metal skirting of the Brisbane State Government’s new executive building which is still under construction. In such cases, the leaser or building owner must promptly contact specialists for asbestos removal, so wider contamination can be prevented.
Indoor air quality largely depends on an effective, well-maintained ventilation system that circulates and replaces used air with fresh air. Although standard ventilation systems aren’t designed to remove huge quantities of pollutants, they do their share in reducing air pollution in the office environment. But when a building’s ventilation system isn’t working properly, the indoors is often under negative pressure, which can lead to increased infiltration of pollution particles and humid air.
Will Sandford is a Sydney based wood architect, blogger and contributor on interior design and ecology blogs.