Avoiding “Sick Building Syndrome” in the Workplace

“Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS) – a condition affecting office workers, typically marked by headaches and respiratory problems, attributed to unhealthy or stressful factors in the working environment – results in employee illness which costs companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

This could be caused by:

  • Inadequate ventilation;
  • Deteriorating fiberglass duct liners;
  • Chemical contaminants from indoor or outdoor sources,
  • Biological contaminants;
  • Air recycled using fan coils;
  • Traffic noise;
  • Poor lighting; and
  • Buildings located in a polluted urban area.

According to the EPA, a 1984 World Health Organization Committee report suggested that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (IAQ). Often, this condition is temporary, but some buildings have long-term problems.

Frequently, problems result when a building is operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedures. Sometimes, indoor air problems are a result of poor building design or occupant activities.

Mold is also a contributing factor in Sick Building Syndrome. Mold grows where there is moisture.

According to the CDC, in 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with:

  • Upper respiratory tract symptoms;
  • Cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people;
  • Asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. 

These elements may act in combination and may supplement other complaints such as inadequate temperature, humidity, or lighting. Even after a building investigation, however, the specific causes of the complaints may remain unknown.

Solutions to sick building syndrome usually include combinations of the following:

  • Routine maintenance of HVAC systems;
  • Local exhaust ventilation is particularly recommended to remove pollutants that accumulate in specific areas such as restrooms, copy rooms, and printing facilities;
  • Air cleaning; and
  • Education and communication

According to OH&S, installing wireless smart sensors to monitor air quality is now a much more cost-effective option, since the sensors are not only more sophisticated but they also last longer, requiring less maintenance.

Employers who move with the times should find themselves rewarded in the long term with healthier, more productive and engaged employees.