Even though office workers are protected under the occupational health and safety guidelines that apply to all employed individuals, office air quality is proving tough to regulate.
Many of the occupational exposure limits for dust or chemicals are supposed to protect workers from illness or health effects in industrial settings where they may be exposed to high levels of pollutants.
These exposure limit guidelines are not suited to office settings, where exposure levels may be lower yet more long-term, and involving a variety of pollutants..
Common sense says long-term exposure to a variety of harmful air pollutants should be just as -- if not more -- dangerous than occasional exposure to higher levels of the same pollutant, but authorities do not have enough information on the health effects of several pollutants put together to finalize occupational guidelines for the office.
So indoor air quality concerns at the office are difficult to prove and difficult to resolve.
But is it hopeless? Not at all.
10 things you can do to help diagnose and treat the problem
- If you are experiencing symptoms yourself, keep track of them and save a record to show your safety officer, supervisor or other applicable person.
- Work together with the building manager and supervisors to look for possible causes
- Make sure the ventilation system is checked and maintained properly. Does it remove or dilute odors and contaminants with exhaust fans? Does it distribute acceptable levels of outdoor air to all workers? Is it set up to control pressure relationships between rooms (for example, bathrooms and kitchens should be maintained at negative pressure to contain any smells, while computer rooms should be maintained at positive pressure to avoid a buildup of dust)
- Initiate a survey to gather more information about possible sources and causes
- Do a walk-through in the building to pinpoint possible sources of air pollution
- Use your nose as an indicator. A musty smell could mean a humidity-related problem that can cause or exacerbate allergies. A chemical smell might be formaldehyde or another chemical, which can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. A solvent smell can cause allergy symptoms, dizziness and headache and is often caused by VOCs. A dusty or chalky smell (or wet cement) can cause respiratory problems, eye, nose, skin and throat irritation, coughing and sneezing and it often related to fine particle pollution and a problem with the humidification system. Noticeable body odor may be caused by overcrowding or a low ventilation rate and complaints often include headaches, tiredness and stuffiness.
- Get the air tested by a qualified professional with air sampling and air monitoring
- Make sure that everyone does their best to improve IAQ: Do not block any air vents, store food properly and dispose of garbage regularly; clean with non-toxic products; avoid perfumes and similar products; educate workers so that no one is accidentally contributing to poor IAQ.
- Plan renovations with IAQ in mind
- Report any water leaks immediately and have them fixed as soon as possible.
Poor indoor air quality can seriously affect productivity, morale and worker’s well-being.
IAQ professionals and health authorities alike remind us that indoor air quality is a shared responsibility that requires cooperation and swift action from facility managers, owners, occupants, personnel and supervisors.
It is important to address any IAQ issues promptly and to fix the problem. And it's true what they say: Prevention is better than treatment.