On the Job: Human Factors in Interior Workplace Product Design

05/29/2012 |

By Diane Martel
Vice President, Environmental Planning and Strategy
Tarkett North America

The term “people-friendly” is often used when addressing the topic of human factors in interior design. This phrase, however, does not refer only to the effect of the product on overall human health. It also includes, in that philosophy, company labor practices, community impact, human rights and product responsibility. The role of creating people-friendly spaces – from the products used in the building, to the layout of space and facility maintenance – is a crucial part of the process from beginning to end.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), people spend 90 percent of their time indoors. In addition to homes, this includes offices, medical facilities, retail spaces, educational and government facilities among others. It is the responsibility of many – from manufacturers, product specifiers and architects to Interior designers, contractors and facility managers—to take all possible steps to create spaces for occupants that are safe, healthy and productive. Johnsonite works to ensure that its flooring meets these criteria from product development and manufacturing through the products’ lifecycle, so that its’ flooring contributes positively to the building occupants health and productivity as well as that of the maintenance employees who maintain the look of our products every day.                      

By deconstructing the evolving humanitarian impacts of the building product manufacturing industry, an industry committed to innovation in environmental design, we can show how a particular finishing product (such as flooring), can affect both the happiness, productivity, health and safety of building occupants and maintenance workers. Analysis of the product’s manufacturing process, installation, maintenance requirements, lifecycle and aesthetic effects, can be used to understand the relationship and interactions between the building occupants and their interior environments. Using individual experiences as well as group surveys, we will compare the direct knowledge of occupants, facility managers and maintenance workers on the way their interior environments affect them as well as the unbiased ways they function in a given space. The final analysis will be about which group—occupants, maintenance workers or building managers—has the most knowledge of the effects of interior building products compared with which group has the most control over the products chosen.                           


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For many manufacturers, the focus on safety begins long before anyone purchases its products and with its own employees. Johnsonite and Tarkett believe that it is their responsibility as a manufacturer to take all steps to avoid injury– from internal practices to the product that is shipped to the market. Throughout the manufacturing process, the companies’ ultimate goal is zero workplace accidents in their facilities. In 2009 the company introduced strict measures to ensure greater safety and greater efficiency during the manufacturing process, reducing lost-time accidents by 38 percent. Through attention to environmental stewardship, Johnsonite works to ensure that its facilities meet the top industry standards for sustainable manufacturing. All Tarkett and Johnsonite North American plants have received ISO 14001:2004 certification. Developed by the Environmental Management System (EMS), this certification represents the international standard for sustainable manufacturing. To achieve ISO 14001:2004, plants have to work to prevent pollution as well as complying with local and national environmental and health regulations. This achievement marks Johnsonite’s dedication to not only meet internal and industry goals for sustainable manufacturing, but to exceed them.

Indoor Air Quality

Everything in an indoor environment, including the building products, furnishings and event occupants, contributes to the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Poor IAQ in a general workplace can trigger asthma attacks, spread disease and expose occupants to toxic substances. Other health risks posed by IAQ include drowsiness, headaches, and dizziness, which not only affect morale, but also have a direct relation to productivity and the overall health of occupants in a facility. In hospitals, poor IAQ can pose a significant risk to patient recovery, and in educational or office environments, poor health can inhibit occupants’ participation in routine activities.                 

Inferior indoor air quality can be caused by several factors, including inadequate ventilation, insufficient or improper cleaning, and excessive emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). While these are also present in nature, people’s potential volatile VOC exposure level rises up to nine times while indoors. The EPA advises the most effective and energy-efficient way to improve indoor air quality is to control the sources of pollution, including building materials and interior design elements. Flooring, specifically, can have a measurable impact on the quality air. As an example, consider allergies. According to the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, allergies affect more than 50 million people in the United States. What's more, the chemicals used to clean hospitals — chlorine, laundry detergents and softeners, ammonia — contain toxic ingredients and can cause respiratory disease. In fact, studies suggest that nurses, who spend long hours at the hospital, have among the highest rates of environmentally induced asthma of any profession. To further improve the way products impact Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) and the health of building occupants, some companies have moved to measuring in TVOCs, or Total Volatile Organic Compounds, an even more detailed and strict system of measurement.

To remedy the risks of building products’ contributing to bad IAQ, products like flooring can be tested by third-party certification entities to ensure a healthy composition and manufacturing. For the manufacturers who develop these products, the best way to positively affect the IAQ of the buildings where their products are specified is to make a product that requires minimum maintenance and upkeep. Products that are low-maintenance typically use less water and chemicals in the process of ongoing upkeep.


Maintenance workers benefit the most directly from high-functioning, low-maintenance interior products, like flooring, because of their reduced exposure to hazardous chemicals used in cleaning during daily or weekly upkeep. But in spaces like school and hospitals where the upkeep is constant, the necessary maintenance also affects the functions of the building and thereby the productivity of its occupants. In hospital facilities, low-maintenance flooring is crucial because it allows facilities to be undisturbed by elaborate cleaning procedures, allowing patients to rest and recover free from noise and chemicals. Because hospitals can’t ever fully close for maintenance and because their occupants are some of the most vulnerable not only to the effects of IAQ and harsh chemicals overall, but also to the risks of improper upkeep, the maintenance requirements for hospitals have a large impact on the immediate health and safety the occupants.

Reducing or alternating the kind of product maintenance has also had a positive economic impact on several hospitals according to a study by the international advocacy group Healthcare Without Harm. Hackensack University Medical Center's pediatric oncology center in New Jersey switched from using traditionally used toxic-chemical-laden cleaners to custom-made natural products, which dropped cleaning costs by 15 percent — and, more importantly, improved IAQ for employees' and patients. Another hospital chain in Winnipeg, Canada has specified that only high-functioning low-maintenance flooring be used in all of its hospital facilities—a policy that has been upheld in the chain for over 35 years.

Design for Aesthetics

Human factor experts show that colors and patterns affect building occupants, with the capacity to impact motivation, creativity and mood, enhancing the purpose and experience of a building. Knowing this, many companies who design indoor products that incorporate color and design provide advice and assistance from the planning stage of a project through post-installation maintenance, guiding customers toward the most intelligent and integrated choice for their projects. The use of color in healthcare facilities has shown reduction in hospital stays by approximately two and a half days. In schools, color and patterns help improve test performance by 20 percent, and in offices, pleasing aesthetics can increase office productivity rates by up to 16 percent. Research shows that today, building occupants not only work in brighter, more occupant-friendly buildings, but also understand the impact that the building and its interior finishing products have on their productivity and demeanor. In a survey reaching more than 200 office workers from across the United States, 98 percent of respondents felt that their work environment impacted their productivity and demeanor. Sixty percent were aware that the products in their building contributed to the air quality of their building and from that 67 percent felt that the air quality in their building was good. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said that it mattered if the products in their work environment were sustainable or sustainably maintained. This could be accounted for by the ongoing discussion about environmental responsibility in the media, or the fact that products from food and clothing, to paint and plywood have logos and labels declaring them organic, green and sustainable.

Designs for Safety

Specific to the flooring industry, there are many features that can directly or indirectly affect the safety of building occupants. Resilience can reduce leg and foot fatigue; the avoidance of rubber or latex can reduce allergic reactions; the floor can offer both thermal control and noise minimization; and welding rods decrease bacteria growth. In addition, preventative measures such as raised treads on stairs and floors help stop slips or falls and improve traction for the visually impaired, which can help reduce the nearly three million disabling accidents that occur on stairs every year. Manufacturers have designed products that meet requirements for hygiene, static control, water and chemical resistance, acoustics and heavy traffic. Additionally, industry experts have studied the sensorial aspects of the healing process, learning which colors and patterns help people heal faster and alleviate anxiety.

Whether in a healthcare facility, a school, an office or an additional kind of building, the type of flooring specifically that is chosen has a large, wide-reaching impact on the health and safety of occupants and employees, but the kinds of flooring available are based largely on building-specific requirements and the budget of the facility. While specific human factors may not be the main consideration in choosing the building products, a responsible product choice will benefit each group of occupants in their day-to-day work lives and in their continued health and safety.

Further Investigation

To better understand the human impact of the interior spaces we conducted individual interviews and broad surveys, assessing three main groups of people with separate degrees of agency in relation to their interior building products: occupants, building owners/facility managers and maintenance workers. Whether working in a hospital, a school, an office or a mixed-use facility, each of the subject groups had a different understanding of how their workplace affects their creativity and a different amount of control on the interior space design and product selection. Due to the sensitive nature of discussing one’s workplace, all survey respondents and interviewees remain anonymous. 


Of the building occupants surveyed, the majority were full-time employees who work in traditional office buildings. An overwhelming 98 percent felt that the specific elements of their building’s environment affected their productivity and demeanor. Factors such as natural and artificial lighting, interior color scheme and decor, overall workplace cleanliness and office layout were all seen as elements of the design that affected the employee’s everyday demeanor either positively or negatively. Flooring and Wall color were the least pleasing elements of interior decor, while furnishings were the most pleasing. Of the 60 percent of respondents who said they were aware that interior products contributed to the indoor air quality of their building, 67 percent of them thought the air quality in their work place was good or satisfactory. Of the building features surveyed, which included windows, flooring, furnishings, and wall color, windows were valued by 63 percent of respondents to be the most pleasant feature of a space. Respondents spoke of enjoying light, and windows provide a natural relief from fluorescents. Forty-three percent of respondents specified that flooring was the least pleasant office feature next to wall colors. When asked what things could be changed about their workplace to make it a more pleasing or healthy environment, respondents said more color, a cleaner floor, better soundproofing, and a better smell, among other things.

Maintenance Workers

Unlike building occupants and many building managers, maintenance workers are often employed as contractors, where they are responsible for cleaning many kinds of facilities, which all require vastly different products and procedures. Although many maintenance employees are not aware of how the product or cleaning materials affect occupants in the long term, i.e., indoor air quality, they were all acutely aware of how maintenance procedures and requirements affected both their own productivity and that of those who worked in or accessed the building on a day-to-day basis. For this interview group in particular, the interior environment affects not only the actual productivity of maintenance workers but also the perceived productivity. According to one interviewee, the age of the flooring as well as how it has been maintained impacts both job and demeanor, as older buildings or floors never look as clean as newer ones, which in turn affects clients’ satisfaction with their cleaning work. While the flooring and the maintenance required for the flooring affects this group’s job the most directly, they often have little to no input on which floors are used. Once the client is established, contracted maintenance workers are given some control over which cleaning products are used on the floor, but this depends largely on the type of facility, the type of flooring and the budget, rather than the preference of the employee. In terms of flooring, and maintaining the look of flooring, the interviewees agreed that daily traffic was the most damaging and inevitable aspect of the building’s function, but which requires the least work to clean if done on a regular basis. In facilities like schools and hospitals where the maintenance workers are often a part of the building’s staff, they have less control over each aspect of the facility, from the products used to the kind of flooring, but these are also the facilities that require the most specialized interior furnishings relative to the buildings’ use.

Facility Managers

One hundred percent of building owners and facility managers surveyed thought that the interior of a building affected the building occupants, including themselves. Though facility managers do not always have the final say in what products are used in a building’s construction or renovation, they have the most control of all the three survey groups. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they are involved in product decisions, but they do not have the final call. In addition to this survey, a recent study by Tarkett  found that 86 percent of respondents who do have some input on product specification, including owners, architects and designers, stated that they consider the impact of indoor air quality has on building occupants when specifying products. Of the building features surveyed, including windows, flooring, furnishings, and wall color, windows were valued by six percent of building manager respondents to be the most pleasant feature of a space. After furnishings, the second most displeasing element was flooring. When asked what things could be changed about their workplace to make it a more pleasing or healthy environment, respondents said better airflow, updated carpeting and more color, a cleaner floor, better soundproofing, and a better smell, among other things.

Next Steps

It is clear that each group of building occupants is aware of the affect that their surroundings have on their morale and productivity. Occupants know and care the most about their interior environments, likely because they spend the most time there. Occupants also have the least control over the products, the facility design and the maintenance. Maintenance workers are the most directly affected by the kind of chemicals and procedures needed to clean, but since these factors are dependent first on the type of facility, then on the budget for maintenance, there is not room for much flexibility or choice. Unlike occupants, facility managers are more concerned with the more temporary interior elements like furnishings, but are still aware that larger elements like lighting and air flow would be the most beneficial changes to any work environment. Whether in a healthcare facility, a school, an office or an additional kind of building, the type of flooring specifically that is chosen has a large, wide-reaching impact on the health and safety of occupants and employees, but the kinds of flooring available are based largely on building-specific requirements and the budget of the facility. While specific human factors may not be the main consideration in choosing the building products, a responsible product choice will benefit each group of occupants in their day-to-day work lives and in their continued health and safety.


The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality. U.S. EPA/Office of Air and Radiation. Office of Radiation and Indoor Air (6609J) Cosponsored with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, EPA 402-K-93-007.

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