How Your Office is Making you Sick and Ways to Fix It

By
Greg Okhifun
,
Associate Editor
of
Corporate Wellness Magazine
By
,
of

Jane, a web developer in New York, was excited about her new job that she didn’t think much of getting sick from it. In her first week at work, she got a sinus problem, which she treated. The next month, she had another episode, and it went on and on, with another episode every other week till it got worse.

Soon enough, she started having other symptoms including muscle aches and frequent headaches. She eventually went on a leave of absence to get herself evaluated thoroughly and treated. However, she noticed one interesting pattern: she got better after some days away from work.

After a series of investigations, she was diagnosed with a fungal infection –aspergillosis, resulting from inhalation of mold spores in her office building. Jane recalled that the office ceilings were moldy and wet, and was sure the symptoms came from there.

Sick building syndrome describes buildings where at least 20 percent of the occupants experience certain health problems when inside, and feel better when outside the building. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that many office buildings – new and renovated - in the United States may actually be making their occupants sick.

The conduits of illnesses in the workplace are enormous: from poor indoor air quality to illness contracted from a co-worker. This article helps you identify the common sources of workplace-related illnesses and ways to address them.

Problems Making You Sick at the Office and Ways to Fix Them

 

Poor Ventilation

If ventilating and air-conditioning systems do not work effectively, air will not distribute properly to all occupants in a room, and this is a major risk factor for poor indoor air quality.

What this means is that in a conference room, for example, with a lot of people holding a meeting, air will contain high amounts of carbon dioxide from exhaled air, since the ventilating systems are faulty.

High carbon dioxide concentration in the air has adverse health effects, including headaches, drowsiness, increased heart rate, tingling in the hands and feet, sweatiness, and in severe cases, coma and seizures.

Solutions

  • ‍Increase ventilation rates and air distribution: This means that the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems should be designed to meet local ventilation guidelines.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, in its recent guidelines, recommend a minimum of 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air per person in a standard room; up to 20cfm per person in office spaces; and up to 60cfm per person in certain spaces (including smoking lounges) prone to contaminants.

 

Indoor Chemical Pollutants

Most chemical air contaminants in your office come from within the building. Office materials such as carpeting, adhesives, manufactured wood products, copy machines, upholstery, and cleaning agents emit substances called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), one of which is formaldehyde.

Some of these materials, particularly furniture and carpeting are laden with perfluorinated chemicals(PFCs), which serve to repel stains from off the materials. These chemicals emit formaldehyde, a carcinogen which, when inhaled, has dire health effects.

Short term effects of formaldehyde in the blood are exacerbations of asthma and allergic reactions, while in the long term; it may cause cancer, thyroid disorders, and infertility.

Tobacco smoking in the workplace also exposes other workers to VOCs and toxic particles, which may predispose to recurrent respiratory problems, worsening of asthma symptoms, and development of asthma in children.

Solutions

Pollutant source elimination or modification:

  • Increase ventilation rates and air distribution: This means that the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems should be designed to meet local ventilation guidelines.
  • Ensure periodic maintenance of the HVAC systems. This can be done by periodic cleaning or replacement of filters. Change the filers on these systems every 2-3 months and service them at least once a year.
  • Clean your carpeting at least once in 6 months.
  • Regular air cleaning: Use particle control devices and high-performance air filters to clear out particles from your building.
  • Institute tobacco smoke restriction in the workplace
  • Store and use paints, adhesives, and pesticides in areas of buildings that are well ventilated. Also, use these potential pollutants during periods when occupants are away and allow time for building materials to off-gas these pollutants before allowing occupants to enter in.
  • Decorate office with plants, such as Boston fern, palm trees, and Kimberly Queen that remove VOCs and other indoor pollutants from the air.
  • Take breaks during office hours to get fresh air outside; a few minutes of fresh air would reverse carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
  • PFCs hide in dust particles, so dust your workspace and desk with a damp cloth regularly to eliminate the particles.
  • Use stain-repellant furniture instead of those laden with PFCs.
  • Buy leather furniture and install wood flooring that can easily be cleaned.

Outdoor Chemical Pollutants

Outdoor air that enters the building may carry a lot of pollutants. Combustion products such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide from vented combustion appliances, motor vehicle exhausts, plumbing vents, or a nearby parking garage may enter the building through windows, air vents, and other openings.

Carbon monoxide builds up slowly in the blood when inhaled and in the initial stages, may cause dizziness, weakness, nausea, headaches, and confusion. These symptoms immediately resolve when you inhale fresh air outside. However, prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide causes a high concentration of the chemical in the blood, which may lead to brain damage and death.

Solutions

  • Increase ventilation rates and air distribution: This means that the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems should be designed to meet local ventilation guidelines. Your HVAC systems should pump in up to 20 cfm of outdoor air per person in an office space.
  • Ensure periodic maintenance of the HVAC systems. This can be done by periodic cleaning or replacement of filters. Change the filers on these systems every 2-3 months and service them at least once a year.
  • Regular air cleaning: Use particle control devices and high-performance air filters to clear out particles from your buildingInstall carbon monoxide detectors in the work area.

Biological Contaminants

These include molds, pollens, viruses, and bacteria, all of which lurk around every material in the workplace. They may breed in stagnant water in air ducts, drain pans, or water collected on furniture, carpeting, and ceiling tiles.

Bathrooms, attics, basements, and kitchens, refrigerators, which are areas with high humidity levels breed molds, spores of which can spread to other areas of a building through heating system and air ducts. Molds infestations are responsible for a lot of illness contracted from work.

Also, dust mites may be found lurking around neglected areas such as your printer cords, fans, and vent covers. These circulate dust, pollen, and dirt around your office, which you inhale leaving you with respiratory problems.

Poor food disposal and storage also increase the risk of biological contaminants in your office. Poorly-stored or discarded food may attract pests and rodents to the building, predisposing other workers to diseases.

Workers can also contract illnesses from other colleagues that are exposed to these contaminants. Viruses can contaminate doorknobs, light switches, office tables, sink tap handles, coffee pot handles, and office equipment for hours, spreading from one person to another, causing illnesses.

Solutions

  • Don’t overwater office plants: Too much moisture in plants may breed molds.
  • Clean your office equipment and HVAC vents regularly.
  • Clean doorknobs, office desks, and other equipment regularly with a disinfectant.
  • Practice proper handwashing and use disinfectants. Washing your hands more than three times a day could reduce the levels of PFCs in your hands by three times.
  • Replace water-laden ceiling tiles and carpeting.
  • Clean your refrigerator frequently to remove molds and other contaminants
  • Clean your carpeting at least once in 6 months to effectively eliminate mold spores and other biological contaminants.

 

This is not to imply that all illnesses workers experience are associated with sick building syndrome. However, many such illnesses emanate from the office building. There is a good chance that if co-workers experience similar symptoms, the building needs to be checked and a thorough environmental assessment done.