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
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
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
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.