Air quality in working environments

Blanca Beato Arribas, Asset Performance Team Leader at BSRIA sheds light on how indoor air quality can impact working environments.

Indoor environments may feel like a safe haven from external pollution, however, sometimes they can be 8- 10 times more polluted than the exterior, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Indoor air quality (IAQ) at work is measured when it is obvious that staff may be at risk, following specific Health and Safety Executive (HSE) procedures for special contaminants or industries. In office environments, IAQ is frequently dealt with only when there are complaints about odours or sick building syndrome symptoms. Some employers and building owners tend to be reactive rather than proactive, neglecting the maintenance of the ventilation systems or only carrying out indoor air quality measurements when there are scheme points to be achieved.

For their part, employees tend not to question the indoor air quality of their office, unless there is an unpleasant smell or they suffer from nose irritation, dry throat or headaches. There is also little information available about what contaminants are the most common in the work place and their effect on people’s health.

The way to provide good indoor air quality is through ventilation and source control. A design for good, effective ventilation should remove most pollutants and odours in a common office environment.

Measuring indoor air quality is more than measuring temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide (CO2) in a space, but it’s also not cost effective to measure for a long list of contaminants. Unfortunately, not all contaminants are as easy to measure as CO2, as the market offers a large range of analysers that are small in size and can log for long periods of time. The level of CO2 in an occupied space is a good indicator of the general IAQ and overall ventilation effectiveness, but is only meaningful if the space is occupied.

The location of the building can give an indication as to what contaminants to look for, for example, if the building is near a busy road, measuring for nitrous oxides (NO, NO2) and particulates (PM2.5 and PM10) should be considered. If the building is in a radon (Rn) area, checking Rn levels in the building and investigating ventilation solutions should be a priority, as exposure to Rn, which is naturally released from the ground, can cause lung cancer. Isolating the sources of indoor contaminants is not always possible, but there are ways of keeping contaminants under control. For example, printers can produce ozone (O3) and should be located in a well ventilated area or in an office with local extract ventilation; during cleaning processes the ventilation should be on (or the windows open) to reduce the concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC); if the office is being repainted or refurbished, selecting materials that do not have a high VOC emission rate and flushing the building should reduce the VOC concentration levels.

Good maintenance of the ventilation systems, supply and extract grilles, filters and regular duct cleaning should be the starting point to providing good IAQ. This should reduce the levels of external contaminants, such as PM 2.5 and PM10, being brought into the space. Controlling humidity levels and the use of UV lights in ventilation ducts should stop bacteria from growing in the ventilation systems. Controlling humidity levels and ensuring the right ventilation in places such as kitchens and bathrooms should also stop mould from growing.

As employers. we should guarantee that the IAQ in our offices is satisfactory, maintain the ventilation systems, measure contaminants regularly and inform our employees.

As employees, we should ask for indoor environment checks from our employers. Knowing what contaminants to look for and demanding IAQ from our employers could be the starting point in improving IAQ at work. Regulations and best practices are in place, however, it does not mean IAQ gets tested or is even a priority.

Some employers are looking into a holistic approach to ensure the wellbeing of employees. Indoor environmental quality (or wellbeing) at work does not stop at air quality management. It also includes lighting, acoustic and thermal comfort. Lighting refers to lux levels, reduced glare, providing natural light, etc. Acoustic comfort includes parameters such as speech transmission index, privacy and distraction distances, calculated as per standard ISO 3382-3. Thermal comfort, measured in accordance to BS EN ISO 7730, involves measuring temperature and humidity, but also air speed and operative temperature, clothing levels and metabolic rate, which are used to calculate the thermal comfort indices: Draught Risk (DR), Predicted Percentage of Dissatisfied (PPD) and Predicted Mean Vote (PMV).

Some wellbeing standards also take into consideration water quality in a building, nourishment, ergonomics, electromagnetic frequency levels and building aesthetics. More and more studies are beginning to report the increase in employers’ productivity and the reduction in sick leave when wellbeing is taken into account, and the subsequent economic benefits this brings.

Blanca Beato Arribas
Asset Performance Team Leader
Tel: +44 (0)1344459314


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