You spend your days toiling away on keyboards, on the phone, preparing for meetings, presentations and projects. What is it that you have in common with most people who work in an office?
Aside from the sigh of relief and waited anticipation for Friday to roll around - actually, most office workers or those who work from home are regularly exposed to poor indoor air.
In a 2012 study on office IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) and workers’ blood, scientists found concentrations of toxins in office air that were 3-5 times higher than those reported in previous studies of household air, "suggesting that offices may represent a unique and important exposure environment."
It doesn’t matter whether you work in a cubicle or in a bright corner office or in the comfort or your very own home office. The air gets contaminated with fine particles from paper, printers and dust, with volatile organic compounds emitted by office furniture (especially particle board furnishings), carpets, toner, and building materials. Add to this list biological contaminants such as bacteria, viruses and mold as well as many other substances.
Office laser printers can emit harmful levels of toner particles and chemicals into the air, as well as ozone and carbon monoxide. These toxins are as damaging to lungs as second hand smoke from cigarettes. Photocopiers, a staple in most offices, often emit dangerous levels of ozone and other chemicals, especially when located in small, poorly ventilated areas. It is quite unhealthy if your desk is close to a photocopier, and good advice would be to move to another work space.
Exposure to these types of airborne contaminants could lead to a wide range of health effects. Short-term effects include headaches, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing, dizziness and even skin irritation - all part of a condition that has been dubbed “Sick Building Syndrome” by experts. These symptoms should alleviate once you exit the building (unless you have similar IAQ problems at home).
Unfortunately, researchers have also identified long-term health effects connected to poor indoor air quality, among them respiratory disease (including the emergence or aggravation of allergies and asthma), damage to the lungs, liver and central nervous system as well as cancer. There is a reason why the Environmental Protection Agency ranks poor indoor air quality among the top five environmental risks to public health and why the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety maintains that indoor air quality has become “an important workplace health and safety issue”.
Indoor air quality is not static and may change with time, season and air quality event. Here are some reasons why office IAQ may be particularly bad:
Of course, not every person experiences IAQ problems the same way. One employee may be bothered by the slightest hint of perfume, while another won’t even notice.
However, business owners and managers should remember that poor indoor air quality can be more than a health issue for employees. Constant exposure to airborne contaminants and failure to act often leads to poor productivity and low morale among workers.
Business owners can also be held responsible for exposing employees to indoor air pollutants. The Insurance Information Institute estimates that $3 billion in mold claims were paid out in 2002; since then, claims have continued to skyrocket and many insurance companies decided to stop covering mold damage. Legal costs in the field of SBS-related illnesses may include temporary or permanent physical claims, mental distress claims as well as emotional distress claims.
If you want to know how your office is doing, answer these simple questions:
If you answered yes to one or more of the above, your office building may suffer from poor indoor air quality.
Healthy workers are happier and more productive. That means a healthy workplace may ultimately increase your company’s revenue.
There are many things individuals and management can do to reduce the amount of indoor air contaminants in office and commercial buildings.