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17 January 2019
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The quality of the air we breathe both inside and outside the workplace is crucial to the health and, ultimately, the productivity of employees, explains Nigel Crunden.

Credit: Istock

12 May 2017 | Nigel Crunden

The UK is undergoing an air-quality crisis. 

In April, Britain was issued a ‘final warning’ from the European Commission after it failed to comply with EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Exposure to such pollutants can have a detrimental effect on health, with scientific studies linking long-term particle pollution to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

While the UK’s breach relates to pollutants that were found outside, it has once again highlighted the important relationship between well-being and good air quality – whether the air concerned is outside a building or inside. It is crucial that businesses do not overlook the quality of air inside their work spaces, as doing so can not only significantly affect employees’ health, but it can also hinder their comfort and ability to work. 

It is therefore necessary that FMs understand what is meant by good indoor air quality and how it can be improved, as well as knowing any legal obligations that must be adhered to. This will allow them to create a work setting that is healthy and safe for staff.  

1. Does my office have an air quality problem?

While most employees will barely notice when the air inside a building is of a high standard, poor-quality air is likely to cause complaints. Common objections will include unpleasant or musty odours, dusty areas, dampness or mould, and a feeling that the building is ‘hot and stuffy’. There may also be a rise in employees getting headaches or feeling tired, which then disappear when they leave work. If FMs notice any of these symptoms it is very likely that the building is suffering from an air quality problem that should be addressed immediately. 

2. What are the common causes?

Polluted air – which includes chemicals, bacteria, pollen and dust – can originate from a number of sources, but an inadequate ventilation system is normally the most common cause. An environment that lacks a robust ventilation system will considerably restrict fresh air from entering, while a system that is not serviced or maintained properly can trap contaminants. Other causes may include dampness and mould from leaks, overusing cleaning chemicals, and emissions from office equipment, which can all lead to odours and dry or muggy conditions. 

3. Can the air inside a workplace be tested?

Although there is no single test that specifically indicates whether a building has an indoor air quality issue, there are other actions that FMs can undertake. Measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the temperature, humidity, and airflow, as well as inspecting ventilation, heating and air conditioning systems will help identify any areas for concern. Regular walkthroughs of a building should also be carried out to check for water damage, leaks, dirt and smells.

4. Are there any legal obligations?

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations (2002) places a legal obligation on employers to control any substances that are present in the workplace that could be dangerous to human health. Included in its list of hazardous substances are chemicals, fumes, dusts and mists – all of which affect indoor air quality. To ensure businesses are compliant FMs must regularly carry out a COSHH assessment, which involves identifying substances that have legal exposure limits in workplace air. Failure to carry out such an assessment could result in serious consequences for both the organisation and the individual –including fines and imprisonment.

5. What can be done to improve indoor air quality?

Good ventilation design and building maintenance should be the first steps FMs take. But if this is not possible there are alternatives that businesses can implement. Filters on heating and cooling systems must be cleaned or replaced frequently to prevent pollutants from being reissued. Managers should also introduce non-toxic cleaning agents where possible. For a cost-effective resolution that is quick and easy to implement, air purifiers and plants could be integrated into the work environment. By minimising air contaminants, increasing ventilation and purifying the air, FMs can be confident that their workspace is a healthy, clean and safe one. 

Further reading:

COSHH regulations