Sick building Featured

9:55am EDT July 22, 2002

Employees are constantly complaining of headaches, sinus problems, congestion, dizziness, fatigue and myriad other symptoms. You’re losing productivity because of poor health, and absenteeism is high. Is there some strain of flu going around? A severe cold?

Surprisingly, these symptoms may be caused by poor air quality in your building. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30 percent of office buildings worldwide may have significant problems, with 10 to 30 percent of the occupants experiencing health problems. In the United States, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently had 3,000 phone calls relating to poor indoor air quality.

According to the American Industrial Hygiene Association, contaminates may originate from a variety of sources inside or outside of a building. Airborne chemicals, bacteria, fungi, pollen and dust may all contribute to the problem, as can non-air quality factors such as temperature, humidity, lighting, noise, personal and work-related stress and pre-existing health conditions.

Sources of contaminates inside the building include tobacco smoke, dust, poor maintenance of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, furnishings and even cosmetics. Virtually all are present to some degree in every building; they cause serious problems when concentrations become excessive.

Poor air quality results when ventilation is inadequate for keeping contaminant concentrations at levels that do not produce health problems. The HVAC system must not only control contaminants, it must provide a comfortable environment. The perception of stale air, odor, draftiness or uncomfortable temperature and humidity levels can lead to discomfort, and discomfort is the beginning of air quality complaints. The source of most air quality complaints originates with the HVAC system failing to meet employee needs. More than half of all air quality investigations performed by NIOSH were attributed to inadequate ventilation.

If you are receiving air quality complaints, the AIHA recommends gathering data on the following:

  • What are the specific complaints?

  • Where in the building are similar concerns about IAQ occurring?

  • When does the problem occur?

  • When and where did it first occur?

  • Who is affected?

  • What health effects are occupants experiencing?

  • Do the health effects cease soon after leaving the building?

  • Have those affected seen a physician, and if so, what were the diagnoses?

  • Is there any environmental condition (weather) or activity (remodeling, use of photocopier, spraying of pesticides) inside or outside the building associated with occurrence of the problem?

  • Has the building engineer or HVAC contractor evaluated the areas?

Second, evaluate the information. Determine if there is a time or space pattern to the complaints. Also, consider whether the problem may be linked with an activity or condition inside or outside the building, or a malfunctioning HVAC system.

When to get outside help

The American Industrial Hygiene Association recommends considering calling a professional indoor air quality consultant if any of the following are true:

  • In-house efforts have not solved the problem. If occupant reports of building-related symptoms or discomfort continue, the problem has not been resolved.

  • The problem is too serious to delay response. If there is suspected Legionnaires disease or known contamination with PCBs, asbestos or lead, you need outside resources. In addition, if workplace health complaints are widespread and persistent, the situation must be resolved in a rapid and professional manner.

  • There is mistrust between occupants and the employer or building management. Indoor air quality concerns can escalate to the point where independent investigation is needed to develop a credible indoor air diagnosis and recommendations.

  • Litigation or workers’ compensation claims are likely. When problems are not addressed and resolved early, minor occupant discomfort may become more serious. Increasing numbers of occupants are willing to file workers’ compensation claims or initiate other legal actions if air quality problems persist.

  • There is a need for specialized equipment or expertise. One example is if the initial investigation produced a hypothesis that the cause of discomfort was a potentially harmful chemical agent.