Importance of indoor air quality

Posted by Andrew McGiffert |14 Feb 13 | 0 comments

Indoor air quality is often overlooked by businesses as a potential health issue, uncontrolled it can become a significant health and safety matter. Like many other countries, ‘most Americans spend up to 90% of their time indoors and many spend most of their working hours in an office environment’ (Indoor Environments Division 1997). Pollutants in the indoor environment can increase risk of illness and should be regarded as an important safety issue in the same regard as other safety issues such as office ergonomics and guarding of plant and machinery.        

In a report published by the US Environmental Protection Agency it was claimed that ‘air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities’ (U.S. EPA/Office of Air and Radiation n.d.). The quality of the air inside the workplace can impact on the health, well-being and productivity of workers; the EPA estimates that poor indoor air may cost the United States tens of billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and medical care.

The quality of air inside buildings can be impacted by many factors including pollutants, odours, building design, maintenance, ventilation / air-conditioning systems, moisture / humidity and individual comfort levels. In the last decade the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) in the United States conducted over 500 air quality investigations, finding in over 50% of cases the primary cause of air quality problems was inadequate ventilation (Occupational Safety and Health Administration 1999). 

Effects of poor air quality may appear rapidly or may take time to develop, a condition becoming more widespread and acknowledged is ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS), in SBS workers commonly complain of discomfort including headaches, nausea, dizziness, dermatitis, irritations of eyes, nose, throat, coughing, difficulty concentrating, muscle pain, fatigue and sensitivity to odours. The specific causes of symptoms are often not known but are associated with periods of occupancy and tend to disappear after the worker leaves the worksite.

In order to function effectively we need to maintain our bodies at a constant temperature within 36.5 – 37.5oC. Whilst this temperature range is constant across the human species they way individuals regulate their temperature differs, based on the persons gender, mass, perception of thermal comfort, etc.

In response to heat/cold individuals will modify their work environment through an array of means, if available they may increase or decrease ventilation, move to a more comfortable area or change clothes. It is important that workers have some ability to control their own temperature.

Controlling temperature within a comfort range, for most people between 19 – 28 oC (Monash University 2010), and providing good quality air will provide workers with a healthy and comfortable working environment, whilst there may be some workers who have varying perceptions of thermal comfort (e.g. may prefer hotter or colder environments) a moderate temperature range will provide an easier environment to manage one’s own thermal comfort.

The following 5 steps were implemented at each site following the questionnaire and are good practice for businesses to implement early

  • Designate an indoor air quality representative
  • Educate staff about indoor air quality
  • Operate and maintain the building ventilation and air-conditioning system
  • Manage potential pollutant sources
  • Keep a record of health complaints

References / Further Reading

merican Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. “Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy.” ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 55-2010. Atlanta: American National Standards Institute, 2010.

Bureau of Meterology. Beaufort Wind Scale. 2012. (accessed Septemeber 9, 2012).

Health and Safety Executive. Temperature. n.d. (accessed September 9, 2012).

Indoor Environments Division. “An Office Building Occupant’s Guide to Indoor Air Quality.” Environmental Protection Agency USA. October 1997. (accessed September 8, 2012).

Monash University. “Indoor thermal comfort – OHS information sheet number 11.” Monash University. November 2010. (accessed September 9, 2012).

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “OSHA Technical Manual.” United States Department of Labour. 20 January 1999. (accessed September 09, 2012).

Rohles Jr, Frederick H. “Temperature & Temperment: A psychologist looks at comfort.” ASHRAE Journal, 2007: February.

U.S. EPA/Office of Air and Radiation. “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. (accessed September 8, 2012).

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