Running the Risk of Poor IAQ

Why ignoring indoor air quality hurts the health of a workforce and the bottom line.

In every business environment, there are certain health and safety risks that employees expect to have addressed by their employers: Sidewalks must be shoveled and salted after snowstorms, safety goggles and masks must be supplied in the presence of airborne chemicals, and facilities must be kept clean and up to code to minimize accidents. Other factors of workplace health, however, frequently go overlooked. Something as seemingly insignificant as the air that employees breathe can greatly impact the productivity and profitability of a business, and ignoring it can lead to considerable— and costly— damage to a company’s bottom line.

IAQ: An Introduction
According to the Federation of European Heating and Air-conditioning Associations, indoor air quality (IAQ) “ is characterized by all the physical, mechanical, and chemical characteristics of indoor air having an impact on the human being.” While many elements in air can be processed in the body in small quantities, excessive amounts of nearly any air contaminant can have adverse effects on a workforce. Indoor air can contain microbial contaminants including bacteria and mold; chemicals such as radon, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide; and other allergens, all of which can be harmful to the human body with increased exposure.

Other elements in air occur as the direct result of a workplace’s indoor environment or the nature of the business being conducted. The Environmental Protection Agency labels “environmental tobacco smoke, asbestos from insulating and fire-retardant building supplies, formaldehyde from pressed wood products, paints, adhesives, copying machines, and photography and print shops, biological contaminants from dirty ventilation systems or water-damaged walls, ceilings, and carpets, and pesticides from pest management practices” as common contributors to harmful IAQ. Businesses affected by any of these factors should take notice of the ultimate damage they may cause.

How IAQ Can Affect a Workforce
Unfortunately, IAQ is often something that companies neglect to address until employees begin to report problems. The key downfall in a reactive IAQ plan is that, according to EPA, employees can be affected by even a single exposure to some contaminants. One exposure to some contaminants can cause a number of short-term symptoms and illnesses, such as “ dry or burning mucous membranes in the nose, eyes, and throat; sneezing; stuffy or runny nose; fatigue or lethargy; headache; dizziness; nausea; irritability and forgetfulness.” If the IAQ of a business is not addressed in a proactive manner, sudden symptoms and illnesses can cause productivity to drop and give management little opportunity to combat the problem affectively.

Not all IAQ-related symptoms are short-term problems with only moderately costly solutions, however. Long-term symptoms from extended exposure to contaminated indoor air can have a far greater impact than a temporary dip in productivity. Critically fatal diseases including respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer can all be caused by unhealthy IAQ. For example, EPA states that radon, a known carcinogen, is “ in the indoor air of buildings of all kinds,” and that 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States are radon related, surpassed only by smoking as the leading cause of lung cancer in America.

Asbestos and carbon monoxide are also known indoor air pollutants that cause long-term illnesses. Diseases caused by exposure to asbestos can often take as long as 20 or 30 years to manifest. These ailments include lung cancer; mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity; and asbestosis, a condition by which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue. Carbon monoxide exposure in even moderate concentrations can cause angina, impaired vision, and reduced brain function. When serious consequences of poorly managed IAQ occur, a company can be held accountable for neglecting the health and well-being of its staff and ultimately suffer serious, irreversible consequences to its reputation and its bottom line.

The Cost of Neglecting IAQ
It is clear that the quality of the air in any facility has a direct impact on the health of a workforce. Additionally, in a study by William J. Fisk of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, results showed that properly addressing IAQ can manifest directly in economic gains. The study identifies reduced health care costs, less sick leave, and better performance of workers as the most prominent ways that better IAQ can have financial benefits.

Based on Fisk’s survey, poor IAQ causes an increase in the four most common respiratory illnesses (common cold, influenza, pneumonia, and bronchitis), which are the cause of about 176 million days of lost work each year, as well as another 121 million days of restricted activity and lessened productivity. Fisk notes that the cost of this lost work, in addition to the annual health care costs of upper and lower respiratory tract infections, add up to an astounding $70 billion dollars per year in lost revenues for American businesses combined.

In addition to reducing the cases of serious respiratory illness, better IAQ can reduce cases of the common cold by 9 to 20 percent, according to Fisk, which could eliminate 16 million to 37 million cold cases a year and save businesses an estimated $14 billion annually. Increased indoor air quality regulations and standards in recent years have shown an improvement in the health and productivity of workers as well, demonstrating a combined $160 billion savings for U.S. businesses each year.

How to Improve IAQ: Ask the Experts
While many businesses find it easy to overlook the microscopic health threats in the air that their employees breathe, the risk of illness and serious disease—and the billions of dollars of revenue lost annually—make IAQ hard to ignore. Rather than attempt to self-diagnose potential IAQ issues or spend unnecessary funds, businesses with looming IAQ concerns should choose the best option: ask the experts. An experienced IAQ consultant can provide the right IAQ assessments to identify where and how improvements can be made, while providing the necessary guidance and support to ensure the success and sustainability of those modifications.

The process of properly identifying places for improvement in IAQ can be complicated, making an experienced and properly trained IAQ expert even more practical. The first step should include a comprehensive interview process with staff and management. Even if the IAQ consultation was not initiated by employee complaints, it is important to identify whether employees perceive there to be an issue, and if so, what they believe to be the cause.

After identifying the employees’ concerns, an IAQ expert will conduct the necessary tests to determine the actual IAQ issues. According to EPA, there are several common facility problems that result in poor IAQ. Indoor pollution sources are the primary cause of poor IAQ, and the effects of these pollutants can be magnified by inadequate or inefficient ventilation. By not allowing the diffusion of indoor pollutants or the circulation of fresh outdoor air, poor ventilation can result in increased exposure for employees. Poor temperature and humidity regulation also can cause higher concentrations of some pollutants.

Having identified the source of the IAQ concerns, an IAQ expert will offer a detailed report of his/her findings and propose one or several solutions to the problem. These may include increasing ventilation, reducing air recirculation, improving filtration, disinfecting the air of ultraviolet contamination, reducing office sharing, or reducing occupant density. An experienced IAQ consultant can guide a business through cost effective facility modifications that include any combination of these improvements.

Some IAQ problems involve more complicated measures that cannot be easily fixed. Companies that do not efficiently manage IAQ can end up with large, unexpected costs when a problem inevitably does arise. An IAQ expert can help ease the blow to a company’s bottom line even in desperate circumstances, however, by providing several cost effective options and acting as a facilitator for necessary changes. CEOs can ensure the healthiest indoor environment for their employees at the lowest cost possible with the help of a knowledgeable IAQ professional.

Companies that neglect or avoid dealing with the indoor air quality of their facilities ultimately put their employees in danger, and their profits at high risk. In today’s competitive business market, businesses cannot afford to damage their bottom line by overlooking areas of serious concern, and the IAQ of a workplace is one aspect of business that simply cannot be ignored.

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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