Sick building syndrome, or SBS, is an illness that affects hundreds of office workers each year, although for many it goes undiagnosed. A major cause of absenteeism, SBS can cost businesses serious money in low productivity levels and unfit workers. Headaches, nausea and difficulty breathing are all symptoms of SBS that are often mistaken for other illnesses. But what does all this have to do with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC)?
SBS can be triggered by a number of factors and one of these is poor air quality. Hot, polluted air circulating around a building isn’t good for anyone and over long periods of time it can be extremely damaging. If your HVAC system has been installed improperly or isn’t performing to the best of its ability, it could be doing more harm than good. Preventing SBS should be a top priority and is a lot easier than you might imagine. Below is a list of common SBS causes and how you can treat each one.
1. Substandard Ventilation
Air conditioners should keep offices cool and well ventilated, but poor maintenance can be a prime contributor to SBS. If your air conditioner is underperforming then you can expect your staff to underperform too. Knowing where to look for faults and how to fix them can go a long way towards rectifying the problem.
Faulty air conditioners contribute to SBS in one of two ways: poor design or contaminated air ducts. In the first instance, Air conditioners which don’t optimise the airflow through them, could actually turn the air sour. The situation is then exasperated by pollutants such as dust and fibres collecting in the ducts and becoming distributed throughout the office. Ensuring your air conditioner is routinely maintained and cleared of these pollutants can help to stem the effects of SBS.
2. Uncontrolled Heat And Humidity
Of course, HVAC isn’t just about ventilation. There’s also the heating side of things to regulate and maintain. Research indicates that offices where workers aren’t able to control the heat and humidity settings are more at risk from SBS than those which allow it. When employees are unable to regulate room temperatures their workrate suffers. Over time, this can result in the physical symptoms associated with SBS.
HVAC systems which enable user regulation are a simple solution to humidity issues and a building maintenance team should bear this in mind when fitting any unit. Maintaining the humidity levels between 40-70% will ensure worker efficiency doesn’t suffer and humidifying equipment should be checked and cleaned regularly.
3. Build Up Of Chemical Pollutants
Dust is just one pollutant to deal with. Chemical contaminants can often enter the ventilation ducts from either inside or outside the office. Furniture that gives off that ‘new building’ smell is actually releasing harmful chemical into the air. If these aren’t filtered out by the building’s ventilation unit, they can begin to circulate the office and irritate the lungs and throats of workers. Cleaning products and cigarette smoke produce similar effects and need to be eliminated.
Storing harmful substances away from populated areas is a start, but, again, the issue often boils down to poor ventilation. Checking for all possible weaknesses to the HVAC system and changing air filters routinely can alleviate the problem. Be sure to find out whether there are any building sites or busy roads nearby that could be contributing to the pollution, as increasing air supply rates could simply distribute more of it.
4. Low Quality Or Flickering Lights
In addition to ventilation issues, there are also a number of maintenance problems which can intensify SBS. Poor quality lighting is one such problem and needs to be sorted in order to improve conditions. Employees who are forced to work in low levels of light find it harder to concentrate and, consequently, fall behind on their work due to stress and strain.
If the HVAC system appears to be running smoothly, then checking for problems with light fitting could be the answer. Conduct a thorough sweep of all fittings to determine whether they could be working more efficiently and replace any that are faulty immediately.
5. Uncomfortable Office Equipment
By itself, uncomfortable office furniture might not seem enough to warrant the label ‘illness’. But, coupled with the issues above, it can certainly aggravate existing conditions. Chairs and desks that restrict natural movement can lead to aches and pains, whilst poorly positioned monitors can cause further stress.
Thinking ergonomically can reduce the chances of these symptoms occurring. Furniture designed to relieve tension rather than increase it can help to alleviate SBS. With one less thing to worry about, employees are less likely to see a dip in productivity. If all aspects of the workplace are maintained sufficiently, then reported cases of SBS will soon begin to decrease.
About the Author: Tony Ellerker has worked in the building services and construction industry for over twenty years. He is currently the director of Blakes M&E Building Services, who provide pre-planned maintenance, reactive repairs and installations of all mechanical and electrical systems throughout London and the South East.