Air Quality at the Office

This archived article is from April 1999. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Indoor air quality may be the most important element in keeping your office a healthy and pleasant place to work. Good quality air is air that can be breathed continuously without risk to health. Poor quality air can irritate eyes, skin, nose and throat. It can cause mental fatigue, headaches, a stuffy nose, and other flu-like symptoms.

These symptoms are caused by contaminants in the air from two sources: biological (such as fungi, moulds, bacteria or viruses) or chemical (such as fumes from new furniture or solvents). These sources can irritate tissues and cause allergic reactions or infections.

Every office has a variety of contaminants, which can accumulate to high levels and can affect health. Carbon monoxide from vehicle exhaust can be sucked into air intakes and circulated to all parts of the building. Moist plant soils and dehumidifier trays provide ideal breeding ground for the bacteria. These can cause diseases or allergic reactions if allowed to accumulate to a high level. Photocopiers and other electrical equipment can produce ozone, a colorless, highly irritating gas. Walls, carpets and furniture can emit chemicals such as formaldehyde. Photocopier toner or cigarette ash particles can become airborne and inhaled.

Physical factors such as air temperature, humidity, and air circulation, affect general comfort and can influence air quality. For example, excessive humidity can stimulate the growth of microbes. On the other hand, if the air is too dry, static electricity builds up and particles become suspended in the air where they can be inhaled or cause skin rashes. Employees may suffer from dry skin, nose and throat irritation, nosebleeds, headaches, or dizziness from dry air.

Air circulation is important. Each workstation must receive a continuous supply of enough fresh air. Air circulation can be influenced by the arrangement of furniture, partitions, or equipment.

Mechanical ventilation systems are designed to provide a comfortable working environment. However, they are made for specific room sizes and occupancy levels.

Symptoms of Poor Air Quality

Where there is an air quality problem, usually the cause will be obvious, such as fumes from carpet glue or wet paint. However, there are a number of symptoms, often illusive, associated with poor air quality that you should know.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), also known as Tight or Closed Building Syndrome, is a condition where office workers experience a number of mild and unpleasant effects, generally as a result of poor air quality. A general sense of fatigue is the most common symptom, along with a stuffy nose, dry throat, headache, eye irritation, a persistent cough, shortness of breath, or wheezing. Some people may experience severe dizziness or nausea.

Monday Morning Syndrome occurs when the building ventilation system has been shut off for the weekend. Stale air builds up and employees returning to work from the weekend experience symptoms similar to SBS.

The heat and moisture generated in a ventilation system make it an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. Humidifier fever occurs when office workers develop a mild, flu-like fever. It is usually caused by accumulations of bacteria or mould in a poorly maintained ventilation system.

Sick Building Symptoms are usually more prevalent in the winter when office workers spend much more time indoors. As the symptoms are subjective and similar to those of other illnesses such as influenza, often people assume that their illness is all in their head, or that they have caught the "bug" that is going around the office.

No Smoking in the Workplace

Passive smoking refers to a person's exposure to tobacco smoked by others. There are two types of environmental tobacco smoke: Mainstream smoke, consisting of smoke exhaled by smoker's lungs and sidesteam smoke, which is emitted from the end of a burning cigarette. Sidestream smoke is the more chemically toxic, and accounts for nearly 85 per cent of the smoke in a room where someone is smoking.

Workplaces used to provide smoking rooms, where employees could smoke without annoying others. Unfortunately, this did not eliminate the problem of environmental tobacco smoke. These rooms often did not have separate ventilation systems, so the smoke was simply circulated to other parts of the building. Today, many Canadian jurisdictions do not allow any smoking whatsoever inside office buildings.

What You Can Do

  • Be aware of the symptoms of SBS. People tend not to notice SBS related symptoms, such as a persistent cough or headache until it seriously disrupts their work. Often people assume the symptoms are "all in their head", or attribute them to some other cause.
  • Find out how your building's ventilation system works. Where are the air intakes located? Hopefully, not off the loading dock!
  • If your office staff is experiencing symptoms of poor air quality, check first to see if there are any sources of chemical or other contamination to the building's ventilation system. Volatile chemicals, automobile exhaust from parking lots, or cigarette smoke can be picked up by the air intakes and circulated throughout the building.
  • If your office adjoins a machine shop, be aware of contaminants from that source. This is a particular problem in many auto repair places.
  • Make sure the building's ventilation system is cleaned regularly and kept in proper working order. Who is the person responsible for maintaining the system? Have it cleaned regularly even if you aren't experiencing any obvious problems - you may find that it will improve productivity and well-being.
  • Don't turn off the ventilation system at night or on weekends. It should be left running all the time. The additional cost is small compared to the lowered productivity and increased absenteeism caused by poor air.
  • Take the ventilation system design into account when making room for new employees or rearranging the office. Adding heat-generating equipment, such as photocopiers, may also affect air quality. The ventilation system may need to be modified to incorporate the changes.
  • Don't block air intakes or diffusers with furniture or other equipment which will prevent air circulation. To avoid drafts, work stations should not be placed closer than a metre from an air diffuser.
  • Keep office temperature in the low to mid-20s C. Relative humidity should not exceed 60 to 70 per cent.
  • Eliminate air contaminants at the source.
  • Keep lids on containers of solvents. Better yet, use non-solvent based products.
  • Employees who smoke should do so outdoors.
  • Photocopiers should be in a separate room, and ideally vented to the outdoors.
  • Disinfect dehumidifier trays.
  • Plants add cheer to the office. Choose ones such as cacti that like dry soil conditions.
  • Consider having office air tested by a professional ventilation engineer or an industrial hygienist. The Ministry of Labour in your province or provincial agency with similar jurisdictional authority can help you find someone to meet your needs.
  • When planning a move to another floor or building, talk to other people who have worked there. Have there been any problems with air quality? The last thing you need is to move into a problem!