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5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Handling IAQ Complaints

July 1, 2008

For the best outcome, handle IAQ complaints with sensitivity and competency

By Ian Cull

No one enjoys handling indoor air quality (IAQ) complaints. It involves talking about such unpleasant things as bacteria, sinus drainage, and odors. Many complaints are from people who are frustrated, angry, and, at times, irrational. It is easy to make a mistake in that tense environment, provoking someone to seek resolution through litigation. Here are five common mistakes that you should avoid when handling IAQ complaints.

Mistake 1: Disrespecting complainants
It is easy to become jaded after handling countless numbers of IAQ complaints, but don't let them make you callous to the issues your building occupants are facing. One of the easiest ways to turn a small problem into a big one is to disrespect the complainant.

Everyone agrees that outright disrespect should be avoided, but its more subtle forms can have a similar effect. One of the most common mistakes made is assuming that the complainant is dreaming up the problem. This conclusion is usually drawn when building management only takes a cursory stroll through the affected area without experiencing the same health effects as the complainant.

The reality: Occupants can be susceptible to indoor air contaminants at lower concentrations than the staff going out to handle the complaint. Each person reacts to a different concentration level. You can't ignore the problem just because no one else is reacting. Remember: Someone always reacts first.

If building owners and managers don't think complainants are making up the problem, they often make the mistake of treating these individuals as "whiners"—a definition usually assigned to those who have submitted multiple complaints.

The root problem here is a lack of respect for the complainants. Almost always, it's not the intent of the affected individual to be sick and miserable. It's best to view these complainants as people who need your help. As a result, you will go beyond just hearing their words and begin truly listening to them.

You'll never know the precise validity of an IAQ complaint. But, just as procedures must be followed when a fire alarm is pulled—no matter the legitimacy—you should similarly treat everyone with respect and follow the same procedures despite whether you think the issue is authentic or not.

Mistake 2: Lacking a system to log and track complaints
Having a complaint system in place prevents IAQ concerns from falling through the cracks. You should have policies in place on how to collect, log, and track complaints.

There are two main strategies for collecting complaints: self-submitted forms and brief interviews. Self-submitted forms should be very simple and ask open-ended questions; otherwise, your form may suggest problems that the occupant hadn't thought of before, thus biasing your data. You want this to be a useful tool to help you diagnose and resolve the issue; therefore, the form should collect information that highlights timing, location, and symptom patterns.

A simple approach could be a form that says: "Please describe the nature of your complaint, any identified patterns, and any possible causes." Be sure that occupants are not collaborating on complaint forms—one individual may exert undue influence as to how the questions are answered. Quickly collect the forms before the data becomes skewed.

The alternative to self-submitted forms is a brief occupant interview. One advantage to this approach is that it puts a human face to the solution. Also, the data collected isn't limited to standard checkbox answers, and follow-up questions can solicit information the person may have thought was irrelevant.

Which option you choose depends on your corporate culture. Is having a written, self-submitted form good for documentation purposes or bad for leaving a paper trail? Is relaying the problem to a human face likely to cause the complainant to open up or clam up? Whichever way you collect complaints, make sure privacy is protected.

Once the complaints are collected, they must be properly logged and tracked. Self-submitted complaints or interview forms should be recorded in a log—anything from a simple notebook in a three-ring binder to a spreadsheet on a computer. At any given time, staff should be able to cite outstanding IAQ issues and their current statuses.

In the log, consider entering the following data:

  • The date of submission.
  • The type of complaint.
  • The location of the complaint.
  • The name of the complainant.
  • The staff assigned to address the issue.
  • The actions that have been taken.
  • The date the issue was resolved.
  • Any comments.
Your buildings should have policies on how to collect, log, and track complaints.

Mistake 3: Responding without promptness, seriousness, or transparency
Your response to a complaint will influence your future relationship with that building occupant. If the response is delayed, indifferent, or nonexistent, a small problem may turn into a wildfire as speculation flares.

A delayed response communicates that you're not concerned with the complainant's plight. A simple, proactive step is to visually inspect and document the problem as quickly as possible once the complaint is received. As decisions are made or new information comes to light, communication should be expeditious.

A response lacking seriousness also leads to animosity. Most people consider the quality of the air they breathe to be a critical issue, even though the complaints you receive may seem trivial or comical. For example, a complaint may come in from someone about a feeling of bugs crawling under his/her skin. Although your first inclinations may be those of disbelief and disdain, you may be dealing with someone suffering from Morgellons disease. Consider using the following responses to IAQ complaints:

  • "Your concerns are valid."
  • "We care about your well being."
  • "We want to provide you with a healthy workspace."
  • "We are treating this as a serious problem."

Lastly, you should respond in a transparent manner. Although it may seem counterintuitive, transparent communication typically diffuses the tension that often surrounds IAQ problems. You and the occupant should be on the same team, targeting the enemy: the indoor environmental problem. Without transparency, you may be in the precarious position of becoming the enemy.

Mistake 4: Not training or equipping in-house staff
Facility management staff is responsible for a wide range of tasks, and many workers are being overextended. Indoor air quality becomes one of many responsibilities and may eventually get lost in the shuffle. You should appoint an indoor air quality manager to act as the point person for all things related to the indoor environment. It's not enough to create the title, though—without proper training or equipment, the IAQ manager and staff are set up for failure from the very beginning.

By appointing a manager and training your staff, they will gain a fundamental knowledge of IAQ that can help diagnose, solve, and even prevent IAQ problems. When someone understands basic principles of air quality, he/she will no longer overlook those early warning signs of impending problems. Imagine the problems that could be avoided if staff only knew what to look for as they went about their daily activities.

Proper training enables staff to identify and fix the underlying problems associated with air quality complaints; untrained staff typically just addresses the symptoms. Trained staff would know, for example, to re-slope a drain pan that allows water to stand in the cooling system. Untrained staff may only treat the symptom by using a biocidal tab to kill the active growth in the stagnant water.

Good training helps staff members become better diagnosticians, as they will be able to connect occupant complaints with possible indoor causes. If people are sneezing, is that caused by radon exposure? If people have headaches, is that caused by mold spores? A fundamental understanding of IAQ helps staff use the process of elimination to quickly identify potential sources.

Many IAQ contaminants are non-perceivable; therefore, instruments are needed to measure many of the contaminants. Staff should have calibrated equipment to measure the basic parameters of air quality. Taking measurements via in-house staff vs. using outside consultants is a delicate balance, however, which can lead to Mistake No. 5.

Good training helps staff become better diagnosticians, as they will be able to connect occupant complaints with possible indoor causes.

Mistake 5: Hiring outside consultants too quickly or not quickly enough
Many professionals hire consultants at the mere thought of an IAQ problem. Others wait until the problem is so bad that occupants are wearing respirators and Tyvek® suits to work.

Those that hire outside consultants too quickly are paying a lot of extra money for work that could be done in-house. As soon as a complaint is received, in-house staff can start to collect valuable information. At the very minimum, staff can do a visual observation of the affected area and document the conditions with a digital camera. Simple diagnostics, such as determining the direction of airflow, can even pinpoint the problem, avoiding the need for outside consultants. Basic equipment can measure parameters that are symptoms of greater problems. Having a moisture meter and a device that measures temperature, relative humidity, and carbon dioxide is a good place to start. Why pay outside consultants to take temperature measurements when your staff is just as able to read numbers on a device?

Before being convinced that your staff will fully replace consultants, it's good to understand the value of outside expertise. Although they may not be as intimately familiar with the inner workings of your building, they do have experience with IAQ problems that may be foreign to your team. Consultants should have expertise in the specific field with which you are dealing. These experts will have the right equipment and the training for knowing how, when, and where to take any samples. Outside consultants provide an independent outlook that may be needed when hostility persists between two parties.

A balanced approach is to have your staff be first responders to IAQ complaints. They should attempt to identify and resolve the issues within their realm of training and experience. Problems that cannot be diagnosed or resolved should be handled by outside consultants.

Every building professional can take a few simple steps toward improving the indoor air quality of his or her facility. Occupants are becoming more aware of the indoor environment and potential contaminants. Be proactive and put policies in place to avoid these five common mistakes. The result will be happier, healthier occupants who are more productive and better for the bottom line.

Ian Cull is a director at the Glendale, AZ-based Indoor Air Quality Association and president at Indoor Sciences Inc., Chicago.

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