We have learned over the past decade air pollution causes more deaths than HIV, traffic accidents, and diabetes combined. When we think of air pollution, often the focus is on the contamination of outdoor air, however, indoor air pollution has contributed to substantially to millions of deaths, making indoor air quality (IAQ) a significant concern for employers.

Indoor air pollution does not get much press despite being up to ten times more polluted than outdoor air. With Americans spending more than 90% of their time indoors, this is not an issue to ignore because its effects are serious:

  • Poor IAQ is one of the top five environmental risks to health according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Decreased employee productivity is correlated with poor IAQ.
  • Continued exposure to poor IAQ in the workplace leads to more employee absences.
  • Illnesses related to poor IAQ result in increased healthcare costs.
  • Uncorrected, poor IAQ causes debilitating illnesses and even death.

Signs and Symptoms of Poor IAQ

Irritation related to indoor air pollution can present in a variety of ways depending on the general health of employees. Symptoms can range in severity and may resolve when the individual is removed from the building, especially for an extended period of time, like being on vacation.

Symptoms can range from simple coughing, sneezing, to fatigue, headaches, dizziness, and upper respiratory congestion to start. With continued exposure these can develop into more severe issues, including Dyspnea, Epistaxis, Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat that can lead to shortness of breath), Lethargy, Hypersensitivity, allergies and Myalgia (muscle pain).

The EPA notes that some symptoms can show up after a single exposure while others may not appear unless there is repeated exposure to the environment. Individuals who have pre-existing conditions may have more severe reactions, but even in the absence of such medical issues, prolonged exposure to poor indoor air quality can be debilitating and even fatal.

Some activities and events in the building could be detrimental to its air quality. Over population and poor ventilation in a workplace impact workers health because they aid in the creation of indoor pollutants such as, allergens, carcinogens, neurotoxins, immunotoxins or irritants, which may contribute to sick building syndrome (SBS). High humidity, leaks, and flooding, if not dealt with immediately, could cause mold to develop (to learn more, see the answers to 7 Basic Questions About Molds). Renovation projects are likely to leave behind dust and other particles that can have a significant impact on air quality (find out more about the health risks of Construction Dust). Working with chemicals, including cleaning supplies, can also have an effect. If these or similar factors apply to your building, you should make IAQ monitoring an even higher priority.

Why You Should Follow Up on Poor IAQ Indicators

The problems caused by poor indoor air quality in the workplace can have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line. The longer a company waits to address concerns about air quality, the more damage can be caused: what started as a minor issue in need of a quick, inexpensive fix could snowball into a far costlier, and time consuming, repair.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

Since the 1980's, health professionals have been discussing "sick building syndrome," a family of health problems caused by poorly designed, inadequately ventilated buildings. Since developers were largely unconcerned with about air quality in the buildings they designed, the burden of addressing indoor air quality was left to the building’s occupants.

Outdoor air pollution is prevalent in large, urban areas and it inevitably seeps indoors, where it may or may not be neutralized efficiently. Generally, the ventilation system is to blame for poor indoor air quality, but other contributing factors, such as excessive moisture, inadequate waste disposal, and poor upkeep, can also be to blame.

Since the 1950s, buildings have been erected with a goal of being energy efficient. Unfortunately, ventilation systems are not always adapted to effectively accommodate these improvements and filter the air to remove the allergens, carcinogens and pollutants properly. Inadequate ventilation systems cause heating and cooling systems to work harder which means pushing more volume of air to achieve the desired temperature.

If your heating and cooling systems are pushing more air through ventilation systems to achieve a comfortable temperature, the poor air quality will have a serious impact on your employee’s health (especially if it includes mold and toxins). Inhaling poor air makes employees lethargic, unproductive, sick, and in need of leave for sick time or extended leave. Given the cost of hiring and training new employees, increased staff turnover rates can have a noticeable negative impact on a company's bottom line.

Inadequate ventilation system, if left uncorrected, can lead to a buildup of allergens, mold or other toxins in the ducts. With costs resulting from extensive repairs and effects on your workforce.

Best Practices for Improving IAQ

Committing to maintain better air quality in your building only requires following a few simple best practices.

Assessment

Appoint an IAQ champion on your JSC, or hire an IAQ Manager. Work with your team to develop a baseline for your workplace using whatever existing information you have available. This should include a walkthrough and evaluation of your current systems to identify potential problems. Address any immediate issues that are identified in the walkthrough.

Education

Effectively improving indoor air quality requires a team effort. Educate your team on the important of IAQ, how it impacts our health, how the facility operates, and how to identify and report potential problems. Emphasize the importance of early detection. Be sure to involve your entire team in the event of unscheduled maintenance and remodeling projects, pest control visits, or anything else that could increase the amount of chemicals, dust, or other particles in the building so they can create and implement a plan to protect your workers from contaminations.

Upkeep

Good air quality is not a one-time fix, it requires ongoing observation and maintenance. Heating, ventilation, and cooling systems need to be monitored and maintained to ensure their optimal effectiveness (to learn about maintaining HVAC systems in the colder months, see Why Winterization Is Important for Health and Safety). Be sure to plan for remodeling, painting, and other activities that could compromise air quality

Air Quality Sensors and Air Filters

Carbon dioxide detectors have become common in buildings, with modern technology you can expand your system to include sensors for other particles that can pollute your workplace. Companies like COOKFOX and Aclima have begun placing sensors to monitor for carbon dioxide and particulate levels. The sensors allow companies to optimize their ventilation systems and shut down rooms when pollutant levels are too high.

Even something as simple as adding a filter to older ventilation systems can substantially reduce allergens and improve worker health. Consider the impact that air filters have on a residential home. According to a 2011 study, on the effect of air filters showed decreased inflammation markers and improved endothelial (lining of the blood vessels) function. Imagine the effects air filters could have on an entire workplace.

The Bottom Line

Much of the damage related to indoor air quality issues can be prevented with simple maintenance and upkeep. Being proactive with potential air pollutants can improve the health and welfare of your entire workforce, prevent the spread of pollutants, and improve the safety of the entire building.

It takes your entire work team to make a definitive impact and maintain good air quality, it is not impossible and is a worthwhile investment.

We invite you to view the Live Open Discussion with our EHSQ Community member David Thompson, which inspired our IAQ post.