Air quality has been a hot button issue recently, with substantial news coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, EU observers have chastised the government for not acting to reduce air pollution, citing the effects of diesel cars. In the US meanwhile, a spate of wildfires has led to numerous articles on the health impact of smoke and ash.
What few people realise is that air pollution is not just a risk outdoors – it can also affect indoor spaces. Buildings which lack air filtration systems, are poorly maintained, or have poor airflow can actually have worse quality air than a busy street. Knowing the risks and taking an active role in mitigating them can improve employee health, and contribute to increased productivity.
The impact of air pollution outdoors has been well established. Microscopic particulates from vehicle emissions, woodburners, industrial sites and other human activity can irritate the lungs and nasal passages, with the potential to cause permanent scarring and damage.
Many of us don’t think about air pollution at all – we go for runs alongside busy roads, and do DIY without facemasks. This goes double for indoor air pollution. We either imagine that there are no pollutants because we can’t see them, or assume that buildings exist in their own little bubble with specially filtered air. In reality, the same air that’s outdoors is often being funnelled into and trapped inside buildings, which can also add their own pollutants to the mix.
Depending on the source, air pollution can cause serious damage to the lungs, causing irritation, scarring and even cancer in the long term. Studies meanwhile have shown that air pollution can have a substantial effect on cognition and respiration, reducing your productivity at work. Given that an estimated 90% of a business’ building costs are people and their salaries – and that we spend 90% of our time in cities indoors – improving efficiency through worker health should be a high priority for employees and business owners.
What you can do about it:
Air quality meters have become less expensive, and basic tests can be carried out without training. You may still wish to employ a trained health & safety professional to take regular readings in your workplace, however. This is particularly true if you suspect there is a serious or persistent issue, or cannot find the source of a pollution problem.
If an air quality problem is identified, a common source is your HVAC system. Proper, regular and comprehensive maintenance is key to ensure filters are clean, and that spores or other contaminants are not simply being recycled into the air. Ultraviolet light solutions can be employed to avoid chemical cleaning, which is often an air pollutant in itself.
Businesses should also assess their contribution to what’s known as volatile organic compounds, or VOC. These are compounds that can exist as either a liquid or gas at room temperature, thereby evaporating and getting into the air. They could originate from anything that uses or releases chemicals and other waste products, or relies on chemical reactions.
VOCs include compounds that contribute to smog and ozone depletion, and will decrease the air quality in and around your business. There are any number of ways to reduce the VOCs you generate, and make your business greener in the process. These might include:
- Reducing transit/vehicle miles
- Changing your manufacturing process
- Investing in energy efficient equipment
- Change air fresheners, such as those used in bathrooms
Asbestos is often seen as an antiquated risk, and a factor that is easily controlled in older buildings. But asbestos was only banned from building materials in 2000 in the UK, and is still legal to use in the United States, although no new uses for asbestos are allowed. While most construction companies will now seek safer alternatives, there are some usage scenarios in which asbestos is still regularly deployed.
Asbestos is also present in more items than you might think. As well as littering brownfield sites, asbestos is also often present in wall and boiler insulation, wall and floor tiles, ceiling tiles and decorations, pipes, bitumen based materials, window panels and more. There are also a number of older household items which can contain asbestos, including ironing boards and even toilet fixtures.
Asbestos is broadly safe in its dry form. But it can also be susceptible to damage, which can quickly release thousands of microscopic fibres. Many businesses with asbestos in their properties do not have an actively enforced and updated asbestos plan, and are unwilling to undertake asbestos removal, which can be expensive and can easily shut down a building.
Like air pollution, there is no safe quantity of asbestos fibres in the air. The risk only increases with the quantity, as asbestos fibres cause severe irritation and damage in the deepest parts of our lungs. This can lead to the deadly cancer mesothelioma and the lung condition asbestosis, with the full extent of the damage not being apparent for as much as 30 to 40 years.
What you can do about it:
The UK’s Health & Safety Executive works on a ‘presumption of asbestos’ rule – that is, if you don’t know whether materials on your site contain asbestos, assume that they do. For legal purposes, small businesses may create an asbestos register based on their own observations. However, the only way to be sure (and safe!) is to hire a certified asbestos surveyor.
Once you know where any asbestos is and what condition it’s in, you can put together an asbestos management plan. This should include:
- Your asbestos register
- Designating a responsible person (often the facilities or building manager)
- Priorities for addressing asbestos management
- Any plans for asbestos removal or containment
- A surveyance and maintenance schedule
In the short term, you should look to train employees through UKATA certified online asbestos courses, or equivalent classroom training. Once you have an understanding of the issues, you can begin to address any potential exposure issues relating to the asbestos.
If it is present in a storage cupboard or cloakroom, for instance, consider taking these areas out of use. If there has been asbestos contamination in an area, it may be necessary to temporarily close the area or the building, in order for removal works to take place.
Where work does take place, ensure that it follows best practice for asbestos removal. Make sure that all workers have properly fitted and high spec respiratory protective equipment (RPE), dampen the dust where possible, and extract dust with special equipment – never, ever sweep or hoover. Affected rooms (and perhaps even the whole facility) will also have to remain out of general use for the duration – a good chance to give your employees some valuable home working time.
Dust and spores
Dust may seem to be a concern for allergy sufferers, requiring little more than the occasional zip round with a cloth and a hoover. But dust resulting from construction, repairs or other manual work can be a serious hazard, and one that is not always appreciated or controlled for.
Dust byproducts from various metals and woods are known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS). These small dust particles are jagged, causing damage to the lung lining when breathed in. The safe level of RCS in the UK is double the legal requirement in the United States. Yet even this is breached regularly, with many construction workers either not being given or not using correct RPE.
Regular dust in the average office space is not a major risk to human health, but it can have an adverse effect on employees, particularly those with breathing or nasal problems. Mould spores from damp areas, such as around windows, can cause similar issues. In the most serious cases, mould can cause individuals with compromised immune systems to develop serious lung infections.
What you can do about it:
Your average office-borne dust can be taken care of with a cloth and a vacuum cleaner, although cleaning fluids should be used sparingly. But RCS resulting from building works or repairs should be vacuumed with specialist equipment, similar to asbestos. Likewise, all workers should have adequate RPE, and the surrounding area should not remain in use, even if it is an important thoroughfare.
There are numerous ways to avoid creating construction dust in the first place. These might include changing the method of cutting, drilling, sawing etc to minimise harmful byproducts. Alternatively, it may be possible to avoid this process altogether by buying ready-prepared materials. There are also materials available which do not contain RCS, including a number of durable plastics.
The best way to prevent mould is to regulate the atmosphere inside your building. Dehumidifiers and air conditioning can reduce the humidity, and remove the moisture on which mould and pathogens thrive. And for a tried and tested tactic to improve air quality, bring some potted plants into the office. Just make sure they aren’t overwatered, as this can ramp up the humidity.
For the most part, improving the quality of air in your premises comes down to common sense. The biggest obstacle is simply ensuring that air quality is taken seriously, and that preventative practices are taken up throughout your organisation. Once the risks and issues are established and explained, keeping your air quality high – and employees healthy – should be a breeze.