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August 12, 2011
How’s the Indoor Air at Your Workplace?

Protect Workers from Risk and Keep Them Comfortable

There’s no OSHA standard for it. And for the most part you can’t see it or touch it. But the potential risks are significant. We’re talking about indoor air quality (IAQ) in this Compliance Report.

What are the causes of unhealthful air? What are the effects on worker health and productivity? What can you do to reduce the risk? And is it possible that a cleaner, greener building might also save you money?

We’ve got answers and best practices you can start to use immediately. You may wish to circulate the article to members of your safety and health committee, your environmental counterpart, and even your CEO. Indoor air problems may not have the urgency of job hazards like falls and amputations. But the concerns, and the consequences, are significant.

Resources cited include a new OSHA publication, Indoor Air Quality in Commercial and Institutional Buildings, as well as EPA and industry documents, experts, and websites.

What Is IAQ?

IAQ refers to the quality of the air inside buildings as represented by concentrations of pollutants and thermal conditions like temperature and humidity. These affect the health, comfort, and performance of people who work in those buildings. Light and noise are also considered IAQ factors.

According to EPA, air quality problems are a result of conditions including the following:

  • The increase in chemical pollutants in consumer and commercial products.
  • The tendency toward tighter building “envelopes” and reduced ventilation to save energy. (Envelope refers to the elements that make up the shell or skin of the building’s exterior.)
  • Pressure to defer maintenance and other services in order to reduce costs.

Air quality may be influenced by a building’s site, design, renovations, maintenance of air-handling systems, occupant density, activities conducted in the building, and occupants’ satisfaction with their environment.

Many IAQ problems are associated with improperly operated and maintained heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.

Other contributors include moistures, radon, presence of outside pollutants, internal contaminants like cleaning and disinfecting supplies, and use of mechanical equipment.

Eyes, Nose, Throat … And More

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. OSHA says a sign of poor IAQ is that people feel sick inside buildings, but symptoms subside soon after leaving or on weekends.

Health effects vary widely and can be mistaken for symptoms of other conditions such as allergies, colds, the flu—and even stress.

Among diseases linked to poor IAQ are asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs.

Symptoms may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; headache; dizziness; rashes; and muscle pain and fatigue. These typically disappear soon after exposure ends.

However, exposure to biocontaminants like fungi, bacterial, and viruses can cause serious, sometimes life-threatening, respiratory diseases that can lead to chronic conditions.

Acute effects occur within 24 hours of exposure. Chemicals released from building materials can cause headaches, and mold spores may result in itchy eyes and runny noses in sensitive individuals soon after exposure.

Chronic effects are lasting responses to long-term or frequent exposures. Long-term exposure to even low concentrations of some chemicals can cause serious problems.

Cancer is the most commonly associated long-term health risk of exposure to indoor air contaminants. Long-term exposure to radon, asbestos, benzene, and tobacco smoke is linked to an increase in cancer risk.

OSHA notes that good IAQ “contributes a favorable and productive environment for building occupants, giving them a sense of comfort, health, and well-being. Significant increases in worker productivity have also been demonstrated when the air quality was adequate.”

When building managers fail to resolve IAQ complaints, absenteeism, work performance, and employee morale can be affected. But that’s not all—EPA estimates performance loss due to poor indoor air at 2 percent to 4 percent.

Three Types of Pollutants

Indoor air pollutants fall into three basic categories: biological, chemical, and particle.

1. Biological pollutants include excessive concentrations of bacteria, viruses, fungi, dust mites, animal dander, and pollen. These can result from inadequate maintenance and housekeeping, water spills, inadequate humidity control, condensation, or water introduced through leaks in the building envelope or flooding.

2. Chemical pollutants are caused by emissions from products used in buildings. Examples are office equipment, furniture, wall and floor coverings, pesticides, and cleaning products. Other sources are accidental chemical spills, construction-related products, and gases that are by-products of combustion. Examples are carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and nitrogen dioxide.

3. Particle pollutants are solid or liquid, nonbiological substances light enough to be suspended in air. Among these are dust or dirt drawn in from the outside. Other particles are produced by activities that take place inside, such as construction, sanding, printing, copying, and operating equipment.

What Employers Can Do

As an employer, what should you be doing to prevent and control IAQ problems? OSHA recommends a management approach, the same systematic means that you might use to address other safety and health issues. The elements are familiar—management commitment, training, employee involvement, hazard identification and control, and program audits.

According to OSHA, “Management needs to be receptive to potential concerns and complaints and train workers on how to identify and report air quality concerns.” If employees have issues, it’s the job of leaders to assess the situation and take corrective action.

Building owners and managers should develop and implement an IAQ management plan to address, prevent, and resolve problems. EPA recommends selecting an IAQ coordinator and policies, assessing the current status of indoor air quality through periodic inspections, performing necessary repairs and upgrades, and implementing follow-up assessments or other needed steps.

Employers who lease space should become familiar with the building management’s strategy for resolving IAQ problems. It’s important to know whom to contact in buildings where there is mixed use and pollutants may come from a variety of sources. Leases should specify IAQ performance criteria, such as specific rates of ventilation.

OSHA recommends a team approach to solving problems and building consensus around indoor air. An IAQ team should include building occupants, administrative staff, facility operators, maintenance staff, healthcare staff, contract service providers, and other interested individuals.

Control Methods

There are three primary methods of reducing indoor air pollutants. The first is source management, which is considered the most effective. It involves the removal, substitution, and enclosure of sources. An example is installing low-volatile organic compound (VOC) carpets. Another is establishing temporary barriers to contain pollutants during construction.

The second category is engineering controls. An example is a local exhaust system such as a canopy hood that removes sources of pollutants before they can be dispersed into a building’s indoor air. A well-designed and functioning HVAC system controls temperature and humidity levels.

This provides comfort and it dilutes and removes odors and other contaminants. Air cleaning systems also fall under engineering controls. These systems remove particles from the air as it passes through the HVAC equipment.

Administrative controls are management activities that keep employees from IAQ hazards. Among these is scheduling work to eliminate or reduce the amount of time an employee is exposed. For example, maintenance or cleaning should be scheduled when fewer building occupants are present.

Educating building occupants is another administrative control. If people who work in the building are knowledgeable about the sources and effects of pollutants and about operation of the ventilation system, they can take steps to reduce their personal exposure.

Good housekeeping can also help. Recommended practices include:

  • Using mat systems that prevent dirt from entering the environment,
  • Disposing of garbage promptly,
  • Storing food properly, and
  • Choosing cleaning products that minimize pollutants.

OSHA suggests the following steps employers can take to improve indoor air quality:

  • Maintain a good working relationship with building management on indoor air issues.
  • Place furniture and equipment in locations based on adequate air circulations, temperature control, and pollutant removal functions of the HVAC system.
  • Coordinate with building managers on responsibility for design, operation, and maintenance of the ventilation system.
  • Integrate IAQ concerns into purchasing decisions.
  • Work with the building manager to ensure that only necessary and appropriate pest-control practices are used. Use nonchemical methods, when possible.
  • Work with building management and the contractor before remodeling or renovating to identify ways to minimize occupant exposure.
  • Encourage the building manager to develop an IAQ management program.

Good management and work practices can help resolve many IAQ problems, but outside help is sometimes needed.

OSHA suggests building owners or managers start by contacting local, state, or federal agencies for help and for recommendations on the type of experts needed.These could include structural engineers, architects, mechanical engineers, or industrial hygienists.

Be sure that any specialist or IAQ consultant meets licensing or certification requirements. A consultant should base any testing requirements on a thorough visual inspection, a walk-around, and interviews with building occupants.

Greener Building Yields More Green

If building or remodeling is in your company’s future, you have an excellent opportunity to start from the ground up to improve IAQ, according to Tristan Roberts. He serves as editorial director of, an information resource for facility managers, businesses, architects, engineers, and others interested in green building.

Roberts believes that environmentally friendly building has become the norm, especially in the commercial sector.

However, he explains that energy efficiency is not the only reason. “Roughly a third of all energy use is associated with buildings, so you’ve seen green become associated with energy efficiency,” he explains. “But for a large employer, the largest expense is personnel.”

As a result, IAQ and occupant health and safety issues have “ratcheted up on the list of concerns and become part and parcel of green building.”

Employers want to ensure that their workforce is operating efficiently and effectively 5 days a week. One way to do that is by improving the quality of the air they breathe through green-building strategies. Roberts says failure to do that can result in diverse problems.

For example, many conventional building materials (like particle board, insulation, and binders) contain formaldehyde and other ingredients considered hazardous to human health.

Roberts notes that green building certificaton programs including LEED assign credits for buildings that do not have formaldehyde-based particleboard.

Another offender is phthalates, a class of plasticizers that make products soft and bendable. Products containing these chemicals include vinyl flooring and ergonomic handles.

Phthalates, which mimic naturally occurring hormones, are associated with health problems including low sperm count and increased risk of breast cancer.

BuildingGreen acknowledges that the final word is not in on the safety of these compounds, but the organization considers them “chemicals of concern.”

Ventilation and Other Issues

Another key green building issue is ventilation. Roberts believes the current ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) Standard 62 is a solid regulation.

But, he explains, “You start getting into problems when people don’t follow the standard because they’re not paying attention or because they make bad assumptions about how a building will operate once it’s designed.”

Also of concern are older buildings, especially those designed after the 1973 oil crisis when conserving energy was a top priority. Many have reduced ventilation, which can mean higher levels of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide in the air. These can make workers drowsy and unproductive and lead to bigger concerns, he adds.

Natural daylight and access to views affect worker comfort, too, says Roberts. Being able to pause to look out a window view helps employees clear their minds, feel better, and be more productive.

Roberts believes that green building strategies don’t have to cost much and can even save employers money.

He recognizes that some green buildings “pull out all the stops.” But employers who wish to make a difference can keep their workers happy and safe without the big spend.

Tactics include thoughtful purchasing decisions about cleaning and maintenance products like paint, where there is no cost premium for greener options.

Another is conducting an internal HVAC audit using free tools like EPA’s I-BEAM.

The Indoor Air Quality Education and Assessment Model is available at the EPA website (

Audits can reveal problems like building dampness and improperly functioning equipment, which, if not identified, can lead to complex and costly repairs.

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