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Air pollution in the office: an occupational health and safety threat

Posted by Julia G on

Over the past few decades, there have been many improvements in offices when it comes to indoor air quality. Believe it or not, there was a time when tobacco smoke clouds gathered over desks and cubicles in the not-too-distant past.

office workerThankfully, smoking in buildings has been banned and many office managers now have policies in place that cover cleaning schedules and personal care products, among other things.

New construction buildings are often well insulated and maintained.

Still, energy-efficient construction doesn’t necessarily equal clean air, as millions of workers in North America have found out. Many office workers feel unwell or sick in the office, making indoor air quality a major concern that affects productivity, absenteeism and overall well-being.

In fact, the EPA says that lost productivity and medical care due to poor indoor air quality cost the economy tens of billions of dollars.

What is to blame for bad office air?

The sources for poor indoor air quality in the office are varied and manifold. They can arise in older as well as in newer office buildings, depending on construction, maintenance, history, building occupants and much more.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says one of the most common issues in office buildings is the heating and ventilation system, especially if it is not properly maintained or insufficient for the size of the building or the number of occupants in the building.

The HVAC system may lack the power to draw in sufficient amounts of outdoor air for the right number of air exchanges, for example, allowing air contaminants to build up indoors.

Other IAQ troublemakers include:

  • Construction materials used in the building (including particle boards, glues, office furnishings, fiberglass and VOC-releasing materials such as carpets and paints)
  • An increase in the number of workers in the office building (this is often a concern with startups or rapidly growing companies)
  • An increase in indoor air contaminants due to mold, bacteria, viruses, chemicals, dusts or gases
  • Poorly regulated temperature and humidity - high humidity can cause mold growth.
  • Workplace cleaning products, pesticides, disinfectants and similar products that pollute indoor air with volatile organic compounds and toxic gases
  • Modern office equipment such as large office printers, computers and photocopiers
  • Outdoor air pollution that enters the building and is allowed to build up indoors

How does it affect workers?

woman sneezingAs usual with indoor air quality concerns, not everyone reacts to contaminants the same way.

Some office workers are really bothered by changes in smell, temperature or noise level, for example, while others don’t seem to notice.

However, if there are high levels of indoor air contaminants that affect office workers, then these workers often report one or more of the following symptoms:

 

  • Irritated and dry eyes, nose, throat, and skin
  • A recurring headache
  • Seemingly unfounded tiredness and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath (and higher risk of asthma attacks)
  • Hypersensitivity and allergies
  • Sinus congestion
  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

These symptoms may not be noticeable right away, but most people report them after a few hours at work.

Of course, the symptoms may also be related to other health problems, but a good indicator of an indoor air quality issue is if those suffering from symptoms report feeling better when they leave the office building or when they are away for a longer period of time.


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