IAQ Complaints: Survival Techniques for the Safety Professional

Sometimes you cannot find a solution that works. Admit it and keep trying to find answers, but know that some complaints you may never be able to solve.

It is the time of year that sparks dread for many safety pros (and the desire to hide) — the changing of the seasons, bringing with it those pesky indoor air quality complaints.

The weather is cooling in most parts of the country as winter approaches, and with it often comes a tsunami of new indoor air complaints. Some are real, many frivolous; they range from “bad smells” to serious medical conditions documented by personal physicians and medical test results weakly linked to the work environment. Whether new construction is involved or a historic building with antique ventilation (windows), chances are you will receive assorted requests and complaints to deal with professionally and with enthusiasm.

For the safety professional, it takes a lot of time, patience, carefully chosen words, and educating the employee workforce to sort out the real issues from the nuisance and "unhappy employee" issues.

Deal with complaints up front. They will not fade away if you ignore them. They get worse, and eventually it becomes a crisis from the top management suite or a direct communication/inspection from your local OSHA inspector. Have a process flow from "complaint received" to "solved" so that you have a map of how to proceed in a timely manner.

Document everything. This protects the integrity of the investigation and shows your efforts and time to solve the problem. Provide a summary to employees (and beforehand to management) on what the problem was, what was checked, and potential solutions. For big-money items, I recommend advising management earlier than later with the actual costs and benefits and several alternative plans, just in case.

Start low-tech first. Industrial hygiene testing may be needed, but do your groundwork and try several lower-tech solutions first before calling in the instrumentation. Evaluate the complaint and figure out a basic budget you are willing to expend. These are lean budget times, so call a consultant only when one is absolutely needed.

Empower your employees to help themselves. Educate your workforce on what is expected of them in your workplace.

Here are additional tips for resolving these complaints:

  • Report problems sooner rather than later. Give employees an outlet to report concerns so that each can be dealt with by maintenance, housekeeping, managers, etc. Many problems can be solved in the initial stage. A dripping pipe, for example, can be addressed before that pipe bursts, flooding the entire area and resulting in damaged, wet carpet and paper that was stored on the floor.
  • Watch for bad habits. If windows are open, make sure they are closed at the end of the day or before it rains to limit excessive moisture in the building. Make sure work surfaces are clean. Dust regularly. Vacuum regularly. Never leave personal food in an uncovered office trash (take it to the break room). Keep vents and air returns uncovered at all times. Check for high levels of dust from stacks of paper or product. Get rid of the stacks of paper. Food/drink spills may have "bloomed," especially in carpet or fabric chairs, because it was not cleaned up. Sanitation is everyone’s responsibility!
  • Address those smelly things. Personal products — too much hairspray or cologne, dry-cleaning solutions, air fresheners, and oils — may create offensive odors, but so might unwashed or soiled clothing, unsanitary personal habits such as not being clean or not using antiperspirant. Certain food items are odiferous, etc. There should be no uncontained food in desk drawers (many of us have encountered fresh fruit that transformed into a hideous science project over the holidays). A word of sensitivity here: Be gentle when dealing with cultural issues such as specific foods or medication/health issues, such as "chemo" smells.
  • Suggest moving staff around. If temperature is the main complaint, chances are you may have another employee wanting that exact temperature!
  • Relaxation may mean moldy. Eliminate those relaxation fountains that are all too often a microbe soup recirculating in the work area because it was never properly cleaned. You may find vases of molded water, dead flowers, glasses of water with decorations, and more. Check plants for rotting or moldy dirt from overwatering or dumped coffee or other sugary drinks, which can cause insects such as gnats to multiply. As for personal fish tanks — take them and the algae home.
  • Control the things you can change. Admit the building's limitations, but enforce policies. Talk with maintenance about the filter change schedule, the method of regulating temperature, etc. Advise staff that when the heat is turned on for the first time of the season, often there is a dusty smell that is normal and will dissipate. Check the ventilation flow in the area and the system's limitations. Ban personal space heaters or, if you must have them, enforce a policy and selected style. If dehumidifiers are used, make sure they are kept clean.
  • Water, water everywhere? Are there stained tiles? Mold growth on baseboards? Musty, smelly carpet from previous leaks or recently cleaned carpet that is still wet weeks later? Follow the water, and chances are you will find a large part of the problem. Solve the leak and then treat the mold and dampness. Also, check the humidity of the office area through maintenance.
  • Make sure you have a documented process in place and treat every complaint exactly the same. Document, document, document. Send your IAQ complaint form to the staff member or the entire department up front. I do not recommend dealing with unsigned complaints; the affected staff member has to be ready to deal with the problem so that it can be solved. Ask for specifics about what the problem is, when the problems occur (such as specific days of the week), the symptoms, when they clear up, other work area problems, etc. Look for patterns within groups.

Communication Tips
Be seen in the area. Talk to employees, housekeepers, and maintenance staff. Listen to managers, too. Ask their opinion on how to correct the problem and follow up with results. Ensure maintenance has checked the ventilation system, and advise staff of the results. Make sure these problems are not the result of overzealous penny-pinching by maintenance! Ensure enough makeup air is coming into the building.

Determine whether other issues are afoot, such as impending layoffs, other recent disciplinary actions, reshuffling of staff, a new location in the building, etc. Some clever employees keep vague indoor air quality complaints "escalated" in an effort to work from home at least part time for personal freedom. Ask your human resources or employee relations person about other potential problems you could encounter. You'll be surprised what you may learn.

Don't be used. Any complaint can be a corridor to other user issues. Stick to the solution at hand. Safety has enough to worry about without becoming embroiled in the politics of the department.

Although it's not always popular with management initially, I typically send out an informational handout seasonally on the basics of IAQ, what policies must be enforced, and other helpful items for their comfort. I have found it may cause a few additional calls/questions, but the total number seems to diminish faster. Employees like to be heard and to have a direct contact.

Follow up. Once changes have been implemented, such as increasing air flow, ask whether the situation is indeed better. Do not ask "What else do you need?" because all of us want fresh paint, new furniture, etc. That's not safety!

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (www.osha.gov/SLTC/indoorairquality/faqs.html), the most common causes of IAQ problems include:

  • Not enough ventilation, lack of fresh outdoor air or contaminated air being brought into the building
  • Poor upkeep of ventilation, heating, and air-conditioning systems
  • Dampness and moisture damage due to leaks, flooding, or high humidity
  • Occupant activities, such as construction or remodeling
  • Indoor and outdoor contaminated air.

Sometimes you cannot find a solution that works. Admit it and keep trying to find answers, but know that some complaints you may never be able to solve. As safety, we have the responsibility to treat every complainant with dignity and resolve to make them comfortable to the extent possible within reason. You may have to endure unfounded complaints, but when you have a legitimate problem that you can actually improve/solve, it is worth the annoyance. We are a problem-solving group and owe it as a compassionate service to our employees to give them our best efforts.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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