Air Quality in the Workplace and the Impact on Worker Well-being

portrait gemma collins doyle


EHS Consultant


“Clean air is considered to be a basic requirement of human health and well-being. However, air pollution continues to pose a significant threat to health worldwide.”  (WHO 2005)

Believe it or not, the quality of the air in your office area is extremely important. When we think about air pollutants, we usually think about those found outside whether in the air, the ground, or in waterways. Indoor air quality though is as vital to our everyday lives and health, and the pollutants found inside should concern us just as much, if not more.

In fact, indoor air pollution is one of the top five environmental risks to public health, according to the US Environment Protection Agency.

Did you know 90% of our time is spent indoors? And 20-60% of building occupants suffer from symptoms associated with unhealthy indoor air!

The Facts About Indoor Air

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that greater than one building in four has indoor air quality problems
  • 90% of our time is spent indoors.
  • Indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air (5 to 100 times).
  • 20-60% of building occupants suffer from symptoms associated with unhealthy indoor air.


Why is indoor air quality important?

Indoor air quality is a major concern, because it can impact health, comfort, well being and productivity of the occupants of the building.

As mentioned, most people spend 90% of their time inside and most of their working hours in an office environment.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) refers to the air quality within and around the building and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants. Understanding and controlling common pollutants in the office building can help you reduce the risk of indoor illnesses. The health effects resulting from indoor air pollutants may be experienced soon after exposure or even years later.

“Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localised in a room or area, or may be widespread throughout the building.

Health issues:

  • Headaches, eye, nose, throat irritation
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Difficulty in concentrating and fatigue
  • Increased incidence in infection
  • Increased incidence of cough, asthma and respiratory problems
  • Complaints of unpleasant odours and stuffiness
  • Moisture and microorganisms in buildings can cause infections, allergic or hypersensitivity reactions and irritant reactions.


Factors that contribute to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Managing IAQ can be a complex element of building management. It is not as straightforward as fixing a leaking tap or broken light. It is a constantly changing interaction of complex factors that in turn have an impact on the types, levels and importance of pollutants in indoor environments.

These factors can include: design of the building, the age of the building, sources of pollutants, odours, maintenance, type of building ventilation systems and levels of moisture and humidity.

In order to control the air quality of office buildings, there must be three main strategies put in place.

Like any risk assessment, it is always the best outcome if the source can be eliminated, and it is no different with the indoor air quality.

  1. Try to remove the sources of pollution or isolating them from people by physical barriers, air pressure relationships, or by controlling the timing of their use.
  2. Second, dilute the pollutants and remove them through the building ventilation system. Thirdly, the use of a filtration system to cleanse the air of pollutants.


Main Causes of Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor pollutions sources that end up releasing gases or particles into the air are the main causes of indoor air quality problems. Poor ventilation can increase indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough fresh air to water down emissions from indoor sources. High temperature and humidity levels can also have an impact on the pollutants already in the air.

  • Chemical exposures from work processes
  • Chemical exposures from flooring, paint, furniture and cleaning products
  • Formaldehyde can be present when vapours off gas from materials (carpets, particleboard, fabrics, furniture) cleaning fluids and adhesives
  • Photocopiers and electrical equipment produce ozone and particulates
  • Carbon monoxide from badly ventilated combustion appliances
  • Indoor exposure to radon can increase the risk of lung cancer (check your location here and consider the radon levels for your area:
  • Contamination from outside sources – fresh air intakes, vents or window located too near to contaminants.


Moisture and Humidity

It is critical to control the moisture and relative humidity in an office area. With the presence of moisture comes dirt that cause moulds and other biological contaminants that will thrive in these conditions.

If relative humidity is too high, it will contribute to the growth and spread of unpleasant biological pollutants.

Thermal comfort:

  • If the ambient indoor air temperature is too warm, the environment can be stuffy with little airflow – resulting in fatigue and lethargy.
  • Low relative humidity levels can result in irritation and discomfort and worsens the overall perception of indoor air quality issues for occupants.
  • High humidity levels can result in condensation within the building structure and on interior or exterior surfaces and the subsequent development of moulds and fungi and encourages dust mite growth.
  • Very often ventilation rates are reduced to the detriment of the quality of the indoor air and the building occupants breathing that air. Inadequate ventilation means contaminants created by workplace processes are not diluted and are simply recirculated around the building.


How to improve Indoor Air Quality in the workplace

The first step is to carry out an indoor air audit, this will provide your company with a written risk assessment that clearly identifies the hazard, assesses the risk and recommends control measures for the management of the workplace air.

Basic strategies to manage indoor air quality:

  • Source Control – the best way to improve the indoor air quality is to eliminate sources or pollutions or reduce
  • Ventilation – Sufficient fresh air should be provided (8.5 litre per person per second (10 l/s-1person) (Minimum flow rate of 8 litres per second per person
  • Filtration – Filtration systems can be used to reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants such as biological and total suspended particulates.

Consider keeping a record of any reported health concerns or complaints by employees. This will help solve indoor air related problems. It will also help improve the chances of correctly diagnosing and then fixing problems, especially if a pattern in complaints can be detected.

The most important thing you can do as an employer, is not to ignore the problem if there is one, carry out a risk assessment by a trained professional and follow the recommendations to ensure everyone’s health is being looked after.

Remember, good air quality means happier employees and a productive workforce.

To find out more or get advice on managing your IAQ in your office or work environment, please get in touch!

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