Poor air quality at work affects employee health and comfort, driving down productivity while increasing sick days and health costs. As far back as 1989 the EPA reported good air quality increases productivity and reduces lost work days.
EPA Indoor Air Quality Standards
Ideal EPA indoor air quality standards provide comfortable temperatures and humidity within the building while ensuring an adequate supply of fresh outdoor air. Pollutants inside and outside the building must be controlled to prevent airborne exposure.
Poor Air Quality at Work
When buildings do not maintain EPA indoor air quality standards, multiple problems can develop. Building occupants may experience:
- Difficulty concentrating,
- Eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation.
Poor indoor air quality at work can trigger allergies and asthma in susceptible employees. Contaminants such as radon, asbestos, and substances used in industrial processes can cause long-term health effects, including cancer. Some contaminants, such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, cause death in minutes at high concentrations.
What Causes Poor Indoor Air Quality?
Factors resulting in poor indoor air quality at work include:
- Accidental chemical spills,
- Liquid or solid airborne contaminants,
- Chemical contaminants,
- Dampness and moisture damage,
- Dust from construction, renovation, or industrial processes,
- Dust mite allergens,
- High or low humidity,
- Lack of temperature control,
- Mold and fungi growth,
- Pest droppings,
- Poor or inadequate ventilation,
- Tobacco smoke.
How to Improve Indoor Air Quality in the Office or Workplace
No single test helps identify the cause of poor air quality at work, complicating how to improve indoor air quality in the office. First, the cause or causes of poor air quality must be identified. Once identified, causes of air contamination can be resolved in three ways: source control, improved ventilation, and air cleaners.
1. Source Control
Source control is the simplest and most cost-effective solution to air quality issues. The source of poor indoor air quality is identified, then eliminated or reduced. Doing so may require:
- Changing HVAC filters,
- Ensuring building occupants comply with non-smoking policies,
- Locating and fixing leaks and cracks in walls, roofs, around windows, and doors,
- Raising or lowering humidity levels,
- Removing animal materials, droppings, or garbage,
- Repositioning furniture or equipment blocking air vents,
- Storing perishable or hazardous materials correctly,
- Upgrading building thermometers.
Regular HVAC maintenance can resolve air quality issues before they start. In addition, check standing water in air conditioning units, humidifiers, on roofs, and in boiler pans for signs of bacterial or fungal contamination. If radon, asbestos, or similar contaminants are suspected, specific testing is required.
2. Ventilation Improvements
If the source of poor air quality cannot be identified or removed, improvements to the building's ventilation system may resolve the issue by increasing the amount of fresh indoor air entering the building. This may be accomplished by changes to the HVAC system, and sometimes by simply opening windows and doors during clement weather. Bathroom and food preparation exhaust fans also deliver fresh outdoor air while removing contaminants and odors.
3. Air Cleaners
Air cleaners can be used to mitigate air quality issues by removing dust, spores, pollen, and airborne particles from the air. Some, but not all, remove gaseous contaminants as well. The EPA indoor air quality standards do not recommend using air cleaners to remove radon or radon decay products.
Who Oversees Indoor Air Quality?
OSHA does not have specific air quality standards, although standards concerning proper ventilation and control of specific air contaminants do apply. The General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which requires employees provide safe work environments free from known hazards covers a wide range of health and safety issues, and complaints about poor quality at work would fall under this clause. If you’re looking for more ways to mitigate indoor air hazards, visit our Indoor Air Quality Course.