Indoor Air Quality: The Invisible Hazard in Every Workplace

By Kurina Baksh
Last updated: November 1, 2021
Key Takeaways

Indoor air quality is invisible and often seen as a lesser safety hazard, but the EPA has ranked poor air quality as one of the top environmental risks to public health.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) might not be the first workplace hazard that comes to mind, but it's worth taking seriously.


In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ranked poor IAQ as one of the top environmental risks to public health. While it can pose significant risks, few people are fully aware of its dangers.

In part, that's due to the fact that air quality hazards are invisible and largely unnoticeable, and we tend to worry less about things we can see. But that's a challenge employers and safety professionals have to overcome rather than accept. It's up to you to ensure that your workers understand the risks and are protected from them.


So, What's Indoor Air Quality Anyway?

Indoor air quality quite simply refers to the quality of air within a building. While the concept of quality air can sound a bit abstract, it really has to do with the concentration of breathable contaminants or pollutants in the atmosphere.

The air quality inside a facility is typically worse than the air quality outside it, often containing 2 to 5 times the pollutants. Unfortunately, this is far from harmless. Poor IAQ is a major source of health problems and physical discomfort. The effects can be so pronounced that safety professionals even have a name for spaces with terrible indoor air quality: sick building syndrome.

In most cases (barring the presence of smoke or fumes), low quality indoor air looks exactly the same as clean air. Both are invisible. The effects of poor IAQ, however, can be very noticeable.

Here are signs that you may be working in a building with bad air quality:

  • Unpleasant or musty odors
  • Uncomfortable levels of humidity or intolerable temperatures
  • Employees complaining of symptoms they only experience at work, such as headaches and exhaustion

There is no specific test for indoor air quality. If you suspect that your workplace might have a problem, checking the ventilation and HVAC systems to ensure they're working properly. Also look for water damage or mold.


(Learn about Working Safely When the Air Quality Index Is High)

Industries Where IAQ Is a Major Concern

Indoor air quality can be an issue in any industry, including office buildings where most of the employees have desk jobs. However, it is a particularly pressing concern in what are known as the secondary and tertiary sectors of industry.

The secondary sector of industry is manufacturing, where raw materials are converted into products, typically in large factories. Many of the activities and machinery within them generates pollutants, thereby worsening the air quality.

The tertiary sector of industry is concerned with the provision of services and includes healthcare, education, and hospitality. IAQ is a well-known issue for companies in the tertiary sector due to:

  • The high density of people in a relatively small area. Occupancy rates for these buildings are often higher than the designated ventilation rates.
  • Increased interpersonal contact, increasing the risk of transmission for flu, viruses, and other communicable diseases.
  • The potential increase in moisture due to the increased number of plumbing fixtures. If poorly managed, this can promote the growth of molds and mildew.

(Find out How Humidity and UV Levels Can Worsen Heat Stress)

What Are the Types of Indoor Air Quality Hazards?

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

  • Physical IAQ Hazards, including high humidity levels and poor ventilation.
  • Chemical IAQ Hazards, including hazardous dusts, odors emanating from building materials, volatile organic compounds, carbon dioxide from exhaled air, and carbon monoxide from furnaces.
  • Biological IAQ Hazards, including toxic molds growing on wood or ceiling tiles, Legionnaire's disease and other bacterial diseases, dust mites, and pollen.

These hazards can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. They can result in dry mucous membranes, skin rashes, and respiratory infections. Prolonged occupancy in a building with poor air quality can also suffer from mental fatigue, headaches, and nausea.

(Learn more about Legionella: The Killer in Your Tap)

Improving Indoor Air Quality

Poor indoor air quality is a hazard, and like any other hazard it must be monitored and controlled. The following solutions can improve air quality inside a facility and protect the health and safety of its occupants.

Eliminate Sources of Contamination

Where possible, avoid the use of materials that could compromise air quality. Opting for hard flooring surfaces instead of carpeting, for instance, makes them easier to clean and is less likely to harbor mold spores.

Isolate Machinery

Machines that can release toxic fumes, create small respirable particles, or can otherwise compromise air quality should be housed in spaces that are well ventilated and at a remove from workers who aren't making use of it.

Perform Regular Machine Maintenance

Machinery that isn't cleaned, adjusted, or serviced regularly is more likely to emit an excessive amount of pollutants due to excess friction, material buildup, or poor performance. To avoid this, create a maintenance program that ensures all equipment is cleaned and inspected on a regular basis. Scheduling regular maintenance checks for all HVAC systems will also ensure that they are keeping the air cleaner and helping it circulate.

(Find out How to Create a Maintenance Program for Manufacturing Facilities)

Upgrade Your Ventilation

Take steps to increase the airflow in the building. This can be achieved by simply opening the windows more often or by installing a better ventilation system. Upgraded ventilation is especially important in any part of the building that has higher moisture levels.

Follow Good Housekeeping Practices

Set time aside for employees to clean their workspaces on a daily or weekly basis. This will prevent the accumulation of dust, dirt, and other particulates that can affect the building's air quality.

Provide Employees with Respirators

When you cannot guarantee the air to be safe, you should provide workers with respirators that protects them from airborne contaminants. Simple respirators like N95 masks can keep the wearer safe from molds, vapors, communicable diseases, and other hazards.

Monitor Airborne Hazards

Conduct regular inspections to identify air quality hazards, such as looking for mold buildup and other signs or poor air quality. Consider installing carbon monoxide detectors and other air monitoring systems so you can identify issues that would otherwise be invisible and difficult to detect.

Breathe Easy

Indoor air quality may not seem like a pressing hazard, but it can have a major impact on employee health and contribute to absenteeism – not to mention the serious conditions that can develop from exposure to highly contaminated air.

Take steps to maintain good quality air in your facility. That way, everyone can breathe easy.

For all things Respiratory Protection, check out our Respiratory Protection Knowledge Center.

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Written by Kurina Baksh

Kurina Baksh

Kurina Baksh is a Health, Safety and Environment Professional from Trinidad and Tobago. As a recent graduate in the field, she is trained to analyze and advise on a wide range of issues related to her area of expertise. Currently, she is an independent consultant who develops public outreach and education programmes for an international clientele. She strongly believes that increasing public outreach and education can promote hazard awareness and ultimately save lives.

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