Poor air quality is always in the news. Whether it’s about the depletion of the ozone layer or pollutants in the air, when it comes to air quality in general things seem to be improving. Outdoor air quality may be improving, but indoor air quality may actually be getting worse. Since many people spend forty hours or more a week in an office setting, this is an area that everyone should be concerned about.
From libraries to hospitals to offices, more workers are falling sick due to air quality in buildings. This is especially a problem in newer, energy-efficient buildings where windows are sealed shut and fresh air flow is rare. In fact, this has become such a common complaint that the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that one out of every four new or renovated indoor buildings can be classified as “sick buildings”. Workers suffering from building related illnesses cost businesses billions each year in lost productivity and many companies are seeking answers to this problem.
What Does Indoor Air Quality Mean?
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is also referred to as “indoor environmental quality”, and it describes how inside air can impact a person’s health, comfort and ability to work. It can refer to temperature, humidity, lack of outside air in the structure, mold from water damage or exposure to chemicals.
Good IAQ includes comfortable temperature and humidity, adequate supply of fresh outdoor air and the control of pollutants from outside coming into the building. The most common IAQ problems in buildings are not enough ventilation or contaminated air being brought into a building, poor upkeep of ventilation, poor upkeep of heating and air-conditioning systems and moisture due to leaks. Other things, such as construction or remodeling can also have a large impact on indoor air quality.
Does Your Workplace Have IAQ Issues?
If you work in a building with poor IAQ, you will likely notice an unpleasant or musty odor or feel that the building is hot and stuffy. Many times you may notice physical symptoms while at work that go away when you leave, such as headaches, fatigue, fever, cough or shortness of breath. Asthma and some kinds of pneumonias have also been linked to IAQ problems. If you have symptoms that are not going away or are getting worse you may have an IAQ issue. Make sure you talk to your doctor about your symptoms.
Sources of IAQ Problems
Contaminants in air can come from a lot of different sources, both inside and outside of the building. Airborne chemicals, bacteria, fungi, pollen and dust are common pollutants in office buildings. If your building has inadequate design or maintenance of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning that could be a source. Also, cleaning chemicals can be volatile and contain vapors that can act as irritants as well as equipment like copy machines or printers. Even your co-worker can be a source of contamination through breathing or wearing perfume, cosmetics or cologne. All of these things and more are present in buildings; they only become a problem when the concentrations become high, which usually results from poor ventilation.
Preventing IAQ Problems at Work
Employers are required by law to provide workers with a safe workplace free of any known hazards that can cause death or serious injury. Employers are also required to obey occupational safety and health standards and should be reasonably aware of possible sources of poor air quality. They must also notify workers if any immediate dangers that are present in the workplace.
While it’s true that your employer bears the brunt for ensuring adequate air quality and a safe work environment, there are things you can do to help IAQ issues in the workplace.
First, having plants in your office is a great boon for indoor air quality. Just remember to take care of them: dust all plants and get rid of any that are dead or dying. You also want to make sure not to overwater them, as that can lead to the development of mold which will only contribute to IAQ issues.
You also need to store food properly. Keep perishable items in the refrigerator and make sure to clean out the fridge as frequently as possible to prevent odors and mold. You know exactly how bad refrigerators at work can get!
Get rid of garbage in a timely manner in order to prevent odors and biological contamination. Also, try to clean your work space regularly so that dust doesn’t build up. Forgoing air fresheners also will help! Don’t use plug-ins and sprays, as they only mask a problem that should be dealt with at its source.
Keep eating areas clean to avoid attracting bugs. Cockroaches have been linked to respiratory problems and can even cause allergic reactions or trigger asthma symptoms in some people.
If you or your coworkers are having health problems that you think could related to your indoor air quality, work with your office’s HR representative and building personnel to find the cause of the problem.
Photo by Mikkel Zibrandtsen via Flickr CC License