IAQ and Worker Productivity

Better air = better performance.

A study released in September 2009 by the University of San Diego Burnham-Morse Center for Real Estate appears to have received considerable attention in the "green" media but not as much in the media where it could help the most: building, industrial, and facility management publications. The study suggests superior indoor air quality (IAQ), along with natural light and proper ventilation, allows employees to perform better at their jobs.

The study involved 534 tenants previously working in conventional, non-green buildings but now working in buildings considered green based on a variety of factors, such as improved or protected IAQ, whether they were LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, and other criteria. It found the productivity increase came in large part because employees took fewer sick days. Forty-five percent of the employees surveyed took 2.88 fewer sick days in their new green locations compared with the number taken in their previous, non-green locations. This resulted in an average worker productivity increase of nearly 5 percent.

To turn these figures into dollars and cents and calculate the possible benefits to employers, the study used a salary index that assumed the workers in these facilities were paid an average salary (with benefits) of $106,644 annually. Considering sick days and health-related and production-related costs due to illness or absenteeism of workers, researchers determined the improvement in worker productivity was valued at $5,204 per worker.

Another study conducted a few years earlier looked at IAQ with a different point of view. Instead of researching whether improved IAQ could enhance worker productivity, this study examined whether inferior IAQ could hamper productivity. According to Professor David Wyon with the International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy at the Technical University of Denmark, the answer is an unqualified yes. (D.P. Wyon, "The Effects of Indoor Air Quality on Performance and Productivity," Indoor Air 14 (2004): 92–101.)

"It has now been shown beyond reasonable doubt that poor indoor air quality in buildings can decrease productivity in addition to causing visitors to express dissatisfaction," Wyon reported. "There is an approximate 20 percent to 70 percent linear relationship between the percentage dissatisfied with indoor air quality and the measured decrement in performance. The size of the effect on most aspects of work performance appears to be as high as 9 percent."

Still Here After All These Years
It seems people have been discussing IAQ issues for decades. Poor IAQ and the health-related problems it can cause first made the headlines after the gas and oil shortages in 1973. After that energy crisis, new commercial buildings and factories in the United States were constructed with more insulation -- a good thing -- but with windows designed to stay closed and HVAC systems adjusted so the amount of fresh air brought into facilities was reduced. The goal was to decrease energy demands, but the health consequences resulted in what we now call "sick building syndrome."

Yet, just as with stagnant air, IAQ problems linger today, and this is true even after the increased focus on green buildings, environmentally preferable building materials and furnishings, and green cleaning, which can have a major impact on the health and IAQ of a facility. But the problem is complicated. IAQ can be negatively impacted from a variety of sources:

  • Microbial contaminants, such as mold or mildew either developing in or brought into a facility by staff, visitors, or equipment.
  • Gases, including carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Airborne particulates from a variety of sources, including fibers, soil, and dust.
  • The outgassing of carpets, upholstery, paints, and related interior items, especially when they are first introduced to the facility.

Because IAQ issues persist and can be the result of scores of variables, it appears the only way to stay on top of the situation, to deal with an IAQ problem when it surfaces, or to prevent a problem from happening in the first place is to develop an IAQ management plan.

An IAQ Management Plan at Work
Many facilities and organizations already have some sort of IAQ management plan, but these often were developed to protect IAQ during periods of building construction or renovation. Now we know that in many settings, such a plan should be in effect all the time.

An IAQ management plan encompasses three key areas of facility management:

  • HVAC systems: Although the amount of fresh air brought into a facility via HVAC systems can vary depending on time of day, use, occupancy type, and whether a facility is undergoing construction/renovation, ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) recommends a minimum outdoor air requirement of 17 cubic feet per minute per specified zone for office facilities. However, France and other European countries suggest this rate should be as much as three times the U.S. rate. LEED credits are awarded to a facility if it exceeds the ASHRAE requirements by 30 percent, which should be the goal of facilities tackling or preventing IAQ problems.
  • Source control: Keeping pollutants out of a facility in the first place is one of the best ways to protect IAQ. Facility managers should select low-VOC products for paints, adhesives, grouts, mortars, caulking, sealants, and interior finishes, such as upholstery and carpets. Additionally, they should install high-performance matting systems at all key entries to capture and trap contaminants found on shoe bottoms.
  • Housekeeping: The types of cleaning products and equipment used to maintain a facility can have a major impact on IAQ and the health of building occupants. Fortunately, many cleaning-related issues can be addressed by simply transferring from a conventional to a green cleaning system, which is described in greater detail here.

Green Cleaning and IAQ
The Carpet and Rug Institute has developed a Seal of Approval program for vacuum cleaners that not only evaluates overall performance of a machine, but also places a great deal of emphasis on how well it protects indoor air quality.Traditional cleaning products that have been used for years aren't "bad," said Michael Schaffer, president of Tornado Industries® and CFR, companies that produce different lines of professional cleaning equipment. "It's just that new technologies have been developed [that] allow cleaning to be performed with significantly less impact on health, IAQ, and the environment."

For instance, green-certified cleaning chemicals have few if any of the known ingredients and VOCs that can harm IAQ, and they are often manufactured from renewable ingredients, making them sustainable, as well. He recommended that facility managers work with their janitorial distributors to select green-certified equivalents of all of the cleaning chemicals and products currently in use.

This also applies to equipment. The Carpet and Rug Institute has developed a Seal of Approval program for vacuum cleaners that not only evaluates a machine's overall performance, but also places a great deal of emphasis on how well it protects indoor air quality.

And when it comes to vacuuming, industrial facility managers also must be aware of the new Lead RRP regulations instituted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The regulations require managers, especially if renovations, repairs, or painting projects are currently under way, to use vacuum cleaners that can collect and contain lead particulates in these work areas. These systems, which use advanced HEPA filters, are referred to as "critical filtration vacuums" and are designed for heavy-duty industrial use.

The Role of Stewardship and IAQ
As we have discussed, IAQ can be negatively impacted in a variety of ways from scores of sources. This is why, in conjunction with an IAQ management plan, all those who work in and visit a facility must be educated that their activities can affect the IAQ of the facility and the health of other occupants. With education, workers can take the lead in helping to protect IAQ.

"This is important," said Schaffer. "With stewardship, everyone in a facility is responsible for the health of the location, and this is how IAQ can best be protected on an ongoing basis."

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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