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Indoor air quality is an invisible, yet critical factor in your employees’ health.
As the world battles an airborne respiratory virus, facilities managers are under even greater pressure to create an indoor environment with the cleanest, highest quality air possible.
Fortunately, there are several proactive measures you can take to improve indoor air quality.
Indoor air quality is one of seven core aspects of a healthy workplace, according to the WELL Building Standards. Most of us spend an estimated 90% of our time indoors, according to the International WELL Building Institute™, and pollutants inside can be 2-5 times higher than what we’re exposed to outside.
Pollutants such as airborne particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and combustion by-products create compounding deterioration in air quality.
This can lead to headaches, nausea, respiratory irritation, and asthma. Poor indoor air quality has also been linked with decreased productivity levels, increased healthcare costs, and a rise in sick building syndrome (SBS). The EPA uses this phrase to describe “acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building,” without a specific illness or cause.
And if you’ve ever experienced “brain fog” after a long in-person meeting, it might not be just your imagination.
A 2016 Gensler study published in Environmental Building News found that after two hours in a closed-door meeting, participants experienced impaired decision-making due to high carbon dioxide levels.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the most common causes of poor indoor air quality include:
While OSHA has no specific standards for indoor air quality (IAQ) in the workplace, it does offer guidelines. Indoor air should have “comfortable temperature and humidity, adequate supply of fresh outdoor air, and control of pollutants from inside and outside of the building.”
While there is no single test that will identify the source of indoor air quality problems, there are some indications the air in your workplace could be contaminated.
For instance, unusual odors, standing water, building materials with asbestos, and employees who report health effects are a few red flags.
Indoor air quality is affected by outdoor air pollution. Though you may not be able to control the amount of dust, pollen, or other pollutants in the air outside, you do have the power to remove particulate matter and reduce the spread of airborne viruses inside through the use of high-efficiency air filters.
The filters you install in your ventilation system should have a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, or MERV, rating of at least 13 to capture airborne viruses, according to guidelines from the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which offers extensive resources for combating the spread of coronavirus.
Additionally, you should regularly service your air filtration system and keep extensive maintenance records to ensure it’s operating at peak performance.
If you are planning to reopen your workplace after a months-long closure, this is a great time to change your air filters and consider upgrading them.
Outdoor air isn’t the sole contributor of contaminants that affect indoor air quality. The average workplace has several interior sources of air pollution.
For example, printer and copier rooms can emit ozone, which is associated with respiratory illnesses. Bathrooms are the perfect environment for mold and mildew, which release spores and toxins that can trigger asthma and allergies. If you have a closet specifically for storing cleaning products or other chemicals, it can be a source of VOCs, which have been linked with cancer and organ damage.
To preserve indoor air quality, isolate these spaces from the rest of the workplace and ensure your ventilation system expels the air from these areas instead of recirculating it.
For over 55 years, the American public has been warned about the dangers of smoking. Unfortunately, an estimated 34.2 million adults in the U.S. currently smoke cigarettes. Each one releases nearly 70 known carcinogens.
While it’s highly unlikely you allow smoking in your workplace, you could still be exposing your workforce to secondhand smoke without certain restrictions.
To improve indoor air quality in your workplace, require employees who smoke to stand at least 25 feet away from all entrances, windows, and air intakes. In addition, don’t allow employees to smoke on any exterior building spaces, such as balconies, decks, patios, or rooftops.
Effectively preventing exposure to COVID-19 requires extensive and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces. However, some cleaning supplies contain harmful ingredients that can lower indoor air quality and elicit adverse reactions such as eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation.
To make sure your workplace is properly disinfected and sanitized without damaging the quality of the air, use non-toxic, hypoallergenic cleaning products that have been certified under the EPA’s Safer Choice Standard.
You should also create a schedule that specifies the frequency of cleaning to avoid exposing employees to chemicals unnecessarily. Using sensors can help you adjust your cleaning schedule based on demand.
Even normal, everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning, and building operations can degrade indoor air quality by producing particulate matter and VOCs.
While it’s difficult to quantify and test for every possible pollutant, carbon dioxide levels are easy to detect and measure. That makes them a good proxy for other indoor air contaminants.
To maintain high indoor air quality, your ventilation system should maintain carbon dioxide levels below 800 ppm for all spaces of 500 square feet or more with occupant density of greater than 25 people per 1,000 square feet, according to WELL Building Standard recommendations.
Dust mites, roaches, and termites are a common source of indoor allergens that can cause asthma attacks and other allergic reactions. You can reduce the risk of pests by storing any non-refrigerated perishable food in sealed containers and emptying all trash cans daily.
Implementing office hoteling prevents employees from stashing snacks and personal belongings at their desks while making it easier to clean surfaces.
It’s also smart to have a pest control technician regularly inspect your building for signs of infestation.
Some facilities are more susceptible to experiencing issues with indoor air quality.
For example, buildings that are in close proximity to high-traffic roads or manufacturing plants will have higher levels of ozone and VOCs. Likewise, if your workplace is located in a climate with high humidity levels, it will be at a higher risk of developing mold and spores without adequate indoor ventilation.
In these situations, it may be necessary to implement advanced air purification measures. One strategy is to use activated carbon filters or combination particulate/carbon filters in the air ducts of buildings that use recirculated air.
Another option ASHRAE recommends is to utilize ultraviolet germicidal irradiation technology, which uses short wavelength ultraviolet light (UV-C) to sanitize recirculated air. This can be used as a stand-alone device or integrated into your central ventilation system.
Harmful microbes and toxins can live on high-touch surfaces such as tabletops, doorknobs, and light switches for extended periods of time. The floors in your facility are also regularly exposed to all types of dirt and bacteria.
The easier it is to clean these parts of the building, the easier it is to get rid of contaminants.
Avoid installing wall-to-wall carpeting in your workplace and instead opt for laminate flooring or luxury vinyl tile. Make sure the seams between countertops and walls and between windows and floors are properly sealed to eliminate crevices where pathogens can hide. Replace older couches and chairs with new furniture that is easily sanitized, and avoid purchasing any assets that cannot be easily moved for a quarterly deep clean.
Improving air quality in your workplace is an ongoing process, but there’s no better time to start.
If you commit to adopting these strategies, you’ll be rewarded with a happier, healthier, more productive workforce.
For more tips on promoting employee health in this new frontier, check out our latest eBook, How to Plan A Safer Return To Work Now And In The Future.
Hai worked in the corporate real estate division of BB&T for 10 years focusing on facilities management, vendor management, and IT systems before coming to work for iOFFICE. With extensive experience in the IWMS software industry, where he served many years in sales and as a solutions engineer, Hai knows his facilities management stuff.