Is your building under the weather?
If employees seem to be tired and dragging, they may not be the ones needing a checkup — it could be the office building.
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) can cause a concentration of nonspecific symptoms such as ear, nose and throat irritation, and headaches. Along with other building-related illnesses, SBS can cost businesses up to $125 billion a year in lost productivity, according to leading industry researchers William Fisk and Art Rosenfeld.
These ailments don’t just affect manufacturing facilities. One in four nonindustrial office buildings nationwide are “problem buildings,” meaning they have indoor environmental quality issues that risk causing employees illness and discomfort, and adversely affecting productivity, says Philip Morey, director of microbiology at environmental health and safety consulting firm Boelter & Yates.
The good news is that many of these issues can be quickly remedied. Morey, who has investigated thousands of buildings for air-quality problems over the past 25 years, recommends four priority areas to improve indoor environment: cleanliness, providing enough fresh outdoor air for employees, controlling building moisture levels and reducing indoor chemical sources.
The single, most effective way to improve indoor air quality is to reduce dust in the building, according to Morey. “Most often the majority of SBS complaints can be alleviated by a cleaning regimen.”
Morey recommends cleaning with an industrial-strength HEPA-filter vacuum cleaner. This will ensure that 99.97 percent of small dust and debris particles are removed from surfaces. With regular vacuum cleaners, these particles recirculate in the air and rest on surfaces. The cleaning staff needs to be trained on how to use the HEPA vacuum cleaner, which should regularly be used on workstation walls, fabric-covered chairs and bookshelves, Morey says.
Office buildings need outdoor air to reduce the irritation and negative effects of indoor air contaminants, according to Steve Hamerling, technical services manager with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
Most building codes require that at least 5 cubic feet of outdoor air per occupant per minute (cfm) be delivered inside the building to employee areas. However, Morey suggests adopting a higher standard currently recommended by ASHRAE, which advocates that large buildings receive a greater flow of outdoor air. To find ASHRAE’s recommended cfm of outdoor air intake for your company’s facility, multiply .06 by the number of the building’s square footage, then add this number to 5 cfm.
“Outdoor air ventilation is crucial,” Morey says. “It’s not just about moving air — it’s about providing clean outdoor air.”
High moisture levels lead to mold growth, which can cause allergies and asthma. Mold prevention is achieved by reducing excess surface moisture — not necessarily reducing humidity, which ideally should be at 30 percent to 60 percent for employee comfort.
Morey recommends keeping water and dampness away from the building’s ventilation system, windows and air conditioning/air handling unit, and proactively preventing leaks on the roof and building slab. Also, don’t install carpet or anything biodegradable in areas where dampness cannot be controlled.
REDUCE SOURCES OF INDOOR CHEMICALS
Whether it’s regular cleaning supplies or industrial chemicals, these materials should be isolated in a ventilated area away from people, with an exhaust system to send contaminants outdoors. Too often, cleaning products are stored in the same area as the facility’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning units or in employee areas, which further contaminate the office air, says Morey.