Don’t Let Sick Building Syndrome Reduce Productivity

04/02/2018 | By Justin Feit

Flaws in HVAC systems can hamper the health of building occupants

Flu season is a yearly occurrence that, despite best efforts, can’t be avoided. But outside of flu season, your building might be to blame for occupants feeling under the weather, and it’s hurting your bottom line.

Is your facility making building occupants sick?

Read also: Is Your HVAC System Spreading Thirdhand Smoke?

What is Sick Building Syndrome?

If it always seems like people in your workplace are getting sick, the work environment might be to blame. Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) occurs when employees experience a number of symptoms and irritations that get better when they are away from work. Some of these acute symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • ​Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
  • Mental fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Skin irritation
  • Dizziness

“These symptoms can have multiple causes, thus, they do not indicate a specific type of disease or specific type of pollutant exposure,” notes Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Some occupants in every office building will report some SBS symptoms, but indoor environmental factors that are known or suspected to lead to increased SBS symptoms include a lower ventilation rate (throughout the normal ventilation rate range encountered in buildings), strong indoor pollutant sources, air conditioning and higher indoor temperatures.”

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SBS is typically caused by pollutants from both indoor and outdoor sources, as well as other biological contaminants like molds. If you can carefully regulate ventilation, source control and temperature, you can avoid the drop off in productivity that comes with SBS.

Adequate Ventilation and Source Control Are Key

One of the simplest ways to prevent SBS in your facility is to increase ventilation. It can be a delicate balance to improve IAQ while keeping energy costs at bay, but doing so will improve how building occupants feel throughout the workday.

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If you’re unsure whether your ventilation rates are high enough, ASHRAE 62.1 specifies minimum ventilation rates that are optimal for IAQ. By referring to the individual codes and standards, you can apply them to your building with other best ventilation practices. Berkeley Lab states six practices every building should adopt for ventilation:

  1. Maintain building ventilation rates at or above the minimum rates specified in current codes and standards.
  2. Utilize local exhaust ventilation at sources of indoor air pollutants and moisture generation.
  3. Increase ventilation rates during and after painting, cleaning, waxing floors or any other pollutant generating activities.
  4. Locate outdoor air intakes of ventilation systems away from sources of pollutants.
  5. In hot, humid climates, use dehumidification systems to reduce indoor humidity during peak and off-peak thermal load conditions.
  6. Reduce the sources of indoor pollutants to diminish the amount of ventilation needed to maintain low pollutant concentrations.

If you can move more clean air throughout your building while simultaneously preventing biological growth via moisture, the likelihood of SBS in your facility is significantly lower. Additionally, using interior products (furniture, flooring, cleaning supplies, etc.) that are pollutant-free will further reduce this risk.

Communicating with Building Occupants
The best thing you can do to stop SBS from reducing productivity is to make sure building occupants can communicate any IAQ issues.

Some SBS issues might be localized, so you might not be aware that there’s a problem. Thus, creating an open channel to draw attention to issues is critical. OSHA identifies the following questions for employees to consider when it comes to IAQ and health:

  • Do you have symptoms that just occur at work and go away when you get home?  What are these symptoms?
  • Are these symptoms related to a certain time of day, a certain season or certain location at work?
  • Did the symptoms start when something new happened at work, such as renovation or construction projects?
  • Are there other people at work with similar complaints?
  • Did you already see a doctor for your symptoms, and if so, did the doctor diagnose an illness related to IAQ?

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency provides a sample form for IAQ complaints. If you employ this kind of communication in the workplace, the exact format isn’t all that important as long as employees can effectively communicate any problems they are facing.

If workers aren’t voicing any concerns, look for patterns. When employees in the same area frequently exhibit similar symptoms, it might be an HVAC issue in that specific location.


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