As employers around the world welcome their staff back to the office, health protocols are being reviewed and revised to ensure employees feel safe while at work. While some companies have fully adapted their operations to remote working, others have a renewed appreciation for the value of face-to-face collaboration and are eager to get back to levels of creativity, innovation, and real-time problem solving that in-person teams can achieve.
While employees have adapted to taking daily temperature readings upon entering the office, mask-wearing, and social distancing, many businesses continue to fall short in regulating the quality of indoor air in the workplace.
Poor indoor air quality at work
Workplace health and safety is serious business, and while the global pandemic may have drawn attention to the role pollutants play in the transmission of airborne viruses, we continue to face an indoor air safety and health challenge for which there is no cure, only prevention — indoor air pollution.
Poor indoor air quality in the workplace has been an issue for decades and brings with it a host of health risks. Poorly ventilated office air that is endlessly recycled and clogged with particulates, bacteria, and toxic fumes can affect mood, productivity, and workplace performance1. Here’s how you can help ensure you maintain the indoor air quality at work.
1. Avoid triggering respiratory issues
It is in the best interests of the business to reduce staff exposure to anything that might make their respiratory system more vulnerable. Pollutants from tobacco smoke and dust from sweeping or vacuuming can exacerbate underlying respiratory conditions or allergies. Emissions from aged materials and furniture typically account for up to 30% of the total volatile organic compounds (VOCs)2, which can exacerbate allergies and respiratory issues in office workers and contribute towards Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).3
2. Keep it clean
By keeping surfaces clean, you can reduce the build-up of allergens as well as bioaerosols from coughing, speaking, or sneezing that contaminate surfaces and can lead to illness. Desks and shared surfaces should be wiped down daily with a damp cloth to reduce the build-up of dust and bacteria. Offices with carpets — which can be sources of aldehydes and VOCs — can exacerbate respiratory symptoms among office workers and impair productivity4. Carpets should be vacuumed twice a week with a vacuum with a HEPA filter to ensure allergens and dust are removed efficiently.
3. Keep office equipment separate
Printers, photocopiers, and all-in-one office machines are known to emit indoor air pollutants, including particulate matter, VOCs, and ozone, which are all linked to SBS symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and a tight chest5. Where possible, keep machinery separate from staff in its own room or designated area, and increase ventilation to improve the airflow and increase hourly room air exchanges.6
4. Don’t treat colds and flu lightly
In shared office spaces, viral pathogens spread rapidly through contact with infected people or contaminated materials, due to increased potential for contact between healthy and ill individuals. Studies show that occupants in open-plan offices with more than six people have 62% more days of absence7. By promoting a positive working culture and developing sick leave policies that protect the health and safety of staff and reduce “presenteeism” (the phenomenon whereby ill staff nonetheless come into the office) businesses can mitigate the risk of illness-related absenteeism.
5. Consider indoor air safety technology
Harmful concentrations of indoor air pollution can make their way inside through outdated HVAC systems, which can emit VOCs and house colonies of fungi.8 Other pollutants that find their way indoors, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ultrafine particulate matter can have more nefarious long-term effects on productivity and wellbeing. Treating the air requires specialized technology capable of maintaining high levels of indoor air quality at work to help protect the physical health of employees as well as their performance, comfort, and quality of life.
6. Let your employees know you care
By ensuring your health and safety protocols are of the highest standards, your employees will feel safe, protected, and valued in the workplace. Provide proper PPE and hand sanitizers in bathrooms and common areas, while clean air technology can filter particles and disinfect the air of bacteria and viruses. These measures, made visible, will ensure employees feel reassured that their office is a safe and welcoming space.
As awareness grows around the dangers of indoor air pollution, the day will come when the quality of indoor air in offices and workspaces will be officially regulated. However, businesses have an opportunity to get ahead of the competition now when they invest in indoor air safety technology. By publicly demonstrating a commitment to clean air and providing a safe working environment, employees will feel reassured that their health and wellbeing is valued and the business will have a clear advantage when attracting new talent.
- D.P. Wyon, The effects of indoor air quality on performance and productivity, Indoor air 14 (2004) 92-101.
- Assimakopoulos, V.D.; et al. “An experimental study of the indoor air quality in areas of different use”. Global NEST Journal, vol 10, 2008, 192-200. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/215979919_An_experimental_study_of_the_indoor_air_quality_in_areas_of_different_use
- Živković, S.; Veljković, M. “Psychological effects of indoor air pollution”. Working and Living Environmental Protection, vol. 11, 2014: 109 – 117
- P. Bluyssen, C. Roda, C. Mandin, S. Fossati, P. Carrer, Y. De Kluizenaar, V. Mihucz, E. de Oliveira Fernandes, J. Bartzis, Self‐reported health and comfort in ‘modern’office buildings: first results from the European OFFICAIR study, Indoor Air 26(2) (2016) 298-317.
- Berrios, I.T. et al. “Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) emissions from sources in a partitioned office environment and their impact on IAQ”. 2005
- US Environmental Protection Agency. “An Office Building Occupants Guide to Indoor Air Quality.” EPA. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/office-building-occupants-guide-indoor-air-quality
- J.H. Pejtersen, H. Feveile, K.B. Christensen, H. Burr, Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices—a national cross sectional questionnaire survey, Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health (2011) 376-382.
- D. Ahearn, S. Crow, R. Simmons, D. Price, S. Mishra, D. Pierson, Fungal colonization of air filters and insulation in a multi-story office building: production of volatile organics, Current microbiology 35(5) (1997) 305-308.