By ThinkHR and WAKEUP CALL
Nothing is more important to us than the air we breathe. Don’t believe us, try holding your breath for 5 minutes. Something must be “up in the air” because over the last few months we’ve handled several hotline calls related to environmental concerns, all causing some kind of sickness or outbreak amongst workers.
According to OSHA, indoor air quality (also called “indoor environmental quality”) describes how inside air can affect a person’s health, comfort, and ability to work. It can include temperature, humidity, lack of outside air (poor ventilation), mold from water damage, or exposure to other chemicals. OSHA has no indoor air quality (IAQ) standards but it provides guidelines about the most common IAQ workplace complaints. According to OSHA, California, New Jersey, and Washington have Indoor Air regulations:
The most common causes of IAQ problems in buildings are:
- Not enough ventilation, lack of fresh outdoor air or contaminated air being brought into the building
- Poor upkeep of ventilation, heating and air-conditioning systems, and
- Dampness and moisture damage due to leaks, flooding or high humidity
- Occupant activities, such as construction or remodeling
- Indoor and outdoor contaminated air
The following information may be helpful to figure out if there is an IAQ problem at your workplace:
- Do you have symptoms that just occur at work and go away when you get home? What are these symptoms?
- Are these symptoms related to a certain time of day, a certain season or certain location at work?
- Did the symptoms start when something new happened at work, such as renovation or construction projects?
- Are there other people at work with similar complaints?
- Did you already see a doctor for your symptoms, and if so, did the doctor diagnose an illness related to IAQ?
According to the AIHA, “Factors associated with an increased likelihood of complaints include the installation of new furnishings, uncontrolled renovation activities, poor air circulation, and persistent moisture. Complaints may also increase when there is a stressful work environment, such as impending layoffs, a great deal of overtime, or an ongoing employee/employer conflict….. Sources of pollutants can include dust; inadequate design or maintenance of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems; cleaning chemicals, which may contain irritant vapor and/or volatile organic compounds, or VOCs; pesticides; building materials; office equipment such as copy machines and printers; furnishings; occupant metabolic wastes (respiration and perspiration); fragrances/cosmetics; and tobacco smoke.”
Investigating the Problem
OSHA has guidelines for investigating workplace indoor air complaints. The guidelines include the following steps:
- Employer and employee interviews. Questions are asked about health complaints and potential sources (such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems). Other questions explore recent changes (such as remodeling or operations changes) that may have caused problems. For employees, questions are asked about their health complaints and symptoms, as well as their medical and work histories.
- Walk-around inspection. Inspecting the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems is an important step, as many of indoor air problems involve those systems. The inspection looks for potential indoor problem sources, and outdoor sources that may be brought indoors via the ventilation system.
- Collection of air samples. Sometimes—though not always—samples of the air in the workplace can help identify the problem. Sampling the air should not be the first or only step taken, however. The cost of these inspections depends on building size, etc. but remain reasonable. There are also do it yourself kits available on the market.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed free software to help building professionals identify, solve and prevent indoor air quality (IAQ) problems. This IAQ Building Education and Assessment Model, or I-BEAM, is available online.
Last, if the air is causing problems then by all means remove the affected employees. If someone has become disabled as a result know there are work comp, ADA and possible FMLA leave scenarios.