Over the past decade, indoor air quality (IAQ), has become an important health and safety concern. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has ranked poor IAQ as one of the top environmental risks to public health. It's invisible and largely unnoticeable, but it's more dangerous than many people realize; whether you're working on a manufacturing floor or in an office building, the quality of indoor air can be up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air. Further, studies conducted by the American Heart Association and American Lung Association, have linked heart-related diseases and lung cancers to poor air quality.

So, What Is Indoor Air Quality Anyway?

Indoor air quality refers to the quality of air within a building, and it is an issue that is often left neglected. Poor IAQ is a major source of health problems and discomfort for both employees and employers. In the health and safety industry, this is referred to as "sick building syndrome."

The following are signs that you may be working in a building with poor IAQ:

  • The presence of unpleasant or musty odors
  • Physical discomfort caused by intolerable temperatures and humidity
  • Employees may complain about symptoms that are experienced only at work, such as headaches and exhaustion
There is no specific test for indoor air quality, but if you suspect that your workplace might have a problem, checking the ventilation and HVAC systems to ensure they're working properly and looking for water damage, mold and bad odors may be a good place to start.

Industries Where IAQ Is a Well-Recognized Problem

IAQ has been identified as a major issue across two out of the four industrial sectors: secondary and tertiary. The secondary sector of industry involves manufacturing, where raw materials are converted into products at large factories. Consequently, there is an increase in pollutant-generating activities that negatively impact IAQ.

The tertiary sector of industry is concerned with services such as health care, hospitality, education, professional services, etc. IAQ is a well-recognized problem in this sector of industry because of:

  • The high density of people in relatively small areas
    Occupancy rates for buildings in these industries are often higher than the designed ventilation rates, which results in the poor dilution or removal of pollutants.
  • Increased inter-personal contact
    This provides a greater opportunity for the transmission of flu/viruses and other communicable diseases.
  • The potential increase in moisture
    The presence of more plumbing fixtures and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-condition) units can lead to moisture management problems, thus increasing the growth of molds and mildew. Some of these can be a hazard to human health.

What Are the Hazards?

The primary sources of indoor air quality problems fall into three basic categories: physical, chemical and biological.

  • Physical IAQ Hazards: These include improper temperature and humidity levels, as well as inadequate ventilation techniques.
  • Chemical IAQ Hazards: These include hazardous dusts and fibers such as asbestos; odors from building materials and occupants; volatile organic compounds and other pollutants emitted from furniture, equipment and construction materials; carbon dioxide exhaled from building occupants; carbon monoxide from furnaces inside workplaces, as well as vehicle exhaust and tobacco smoke from outside workplaces; pesticides, insecticides and rodent-control products; solvents such as benzene and toluene in cleaning-products, copier toners and paints; ozone from photocopiers, electric motors and electrostatic air cleaners; and radon from naturally occurring radioactivity in minerals and soils found around the workplace.
  • Biological IAQ Hazards: These include toxic molds that grow on building materials that have accumulated moisture such as wood, upholstery, ceiling tiles and carpet; bacterial diseases such as Legionnaire’s disease, Pontiac fever and humidifier fever; dust mites and pollens that can cause allergic reactions; and biological aerosols that do not get filtered out of indoor air as a result of poor HVAC maintenance.
The hazards mentioned above can result in eye, nose and throat irritation, dry mucous membranes, skin rashes, mental fatigue, headache and sleepiness, respiratory infections, nausea and dizziness, and unspecified hypersensitivity reactions.

Improving IAQ

The following solutions can be implemented by management for the purpose of improving the quality of air in the workplace and ensuring the health and safety of employees:

  • Eliminate sources of contamination
    Perform all operations, maintenance and construction activities in a manner that minimizes employees’ exposure to airborne contaminants. Also, avoid the use of potentially hazardous materials, such as wall-to-wall synthetic carpet.
  • Substitute for less dangerous materials
    For instance, choose furniture made from solid wood, ground coverings made from natural fibers, and cleaning products and pest control methods that are non-toxic or biodegradable.
  • Isolate machinery
    Isolate machines that release toxic fumes from occupied workspaces and air intakes, such as large copy machines.
  • Ventilation improvements
    Increase the outdoor airflow into the building. This can be achieved by opening windows (to allow natural ventilation), implementing ventilation systems in accordance with IAQ ventilation standards and scheduling regular maintenance checks for all HVAC systems. Also, it is important to ensure that high moisture areas are well ventilated to inhibit mold and mildew growth.
  • Good housekeeping practices
    Clean occupied workspaces regularly to remove dust, dirt and particulates that build up indoors. Also, maintain sanitary mechanical equipment and building surfaces.
  • Use of personal protective equipment
    Provide employees with the appropriate respiratory equipment in cases where the source of contamination cannot be completely removed.
  • Monitoring and Evaluation
    Carry out frequent inspections to identify indoor air quality hazards, and incorporate IAQ issues on the health and safety committee agenda. Report all IAQ hazards that are identified and ensure that major sources of contamination are promptly controlled.

Breathe Easy

Each work environment has unique contributors to air quality. For employees, poor indoor air quality can affect work performance and productivity - and put their well-being at risk. Employers have a responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy work environment. IAQ may not seem like a pressing occupational hazard, but it can have a major impact on illness and absenteeism, not to mention some of the more serious health problems that can come with highly contaminated air. Maintaining good IAQ can help everyone breath easy.