Maintaining Indoor Air Quality: Common Sense First
Determining the quality of indoor air begins with managing expectations, and having standards in place.
- By Tom Burgess
- Oct 01, 2020
It started with one employee, then two, then three.
A worker said she was experiencing symptoms of an allergic response—sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes. A colleague agreed, saying he thought he might be experiencing similar issues. Another coworker, overhearing the conversation and convinced he was also having symptoms, began a search on the internet.
These alleged symptoms were not experienced by everyone; indeed, not even by most colleagues in the upscale, well-maintained office building. But the minority was very vocal, and complaints began to circulate. We must, the workers insisted, have the air tested for mold spores. Though the facility’s management was unconvinced, they were willing to make the investment in indoor air quality testing, simply to address their tenant’s concerns.
My testing was thorough, and science-based. In addition to air sampling, I asked the usual questions. Have there been any recent changes? Is the janitorial staff using a different type of disinfectant? Has someone brought in a new houseplant? The results were conclusive: there was no mold, or any other issue with the air quality. Nor were there any underlying factors that must be present for mold to exist, such as excess moisture. In this particular instance, it seems that the root cause was not an air quality issue at all—just the highly persuasive powers of suggestion and peer pressure. Even after the test results were shown to the workers, some were skeptical. After all, it’s easy to point to a problem and prove that something exists, but it’s more difficult to prove that something does not.
Still, every worker’s concern is valid, and should always be treated with the utmost seriousness. Even though there were no issues this time, next time may be different—which is why managers must always be vigilant and listen carefully, even when it sounds like “the usual complaints.”
Determining the quality of indoor air begins with managing expectations, and having standards in place. First and foremost, there is a distinction between health and comfort. Both are absolutely important, but that doesn’t mean they have the same priority. In some facilities, workers can get accustomed to some discomfort, as long as it isn’t too disagreeable. Older buildings may be a bit stuffy. Maybe opening a window will do the trick. Perhaps it gets drafty in the winter, and everyone knows to keep an extra sweater at their desks. I once worked in a multi-story building with a cafeteria. If the wind was blowing in a certain direction at lunch time, some of the exhaust would get pulled into the air handlers and the entire floor would smell like french fries. It didn’t endanger anyone. We got used to it.
That is why, when I conduct a site visit, I always take a close look at the environment to determine what is expected and acceptable. We expect a dentist’s office to smell like a dentist’s office. Offices attached to a chemical plant or manufacturing facilities may also have safe levels of odors present. The air quality standards for a warehouse are different than those for a medical facility. OSHA and other occupational exposure limits aren’t really helpful in this situation. The odor at a gas station will be well below OSHA limits, but you wouldn’t want that same odor in your office building.
It is also important, before you start taking out carbon dioxide meters and peering into air ducts, to look for obvious issues that may be right in front of your eyes. If the maintenance crew has left a full dumpster directly in front of an air intake, that may account for the unpleasant stench now permeating the building.
At other times, there may be a basis for legitimate concern. I was called in to inspect a medical office plaza after numerous employees expressed concerns to management about the building’s ventilation. It was a new, state-of-the-art facility whose owners had made significant investments in ensuring proper air flow and temperature control. Tenants stated that the air seemed stale and stagnant, especially first thing in the morning, and that odors from cleaning products took a long time to dissipate. Some employees even complained of eye and skin irritation. Because the system was new, we had access to engineering documents that showed how much fresh air should be delivered throughout the plaza. And, sure enough, our testing showed that carbon dioxide was building up in one area of the building —indicating that the system wasn’t providing the fresh air it was supposed to. The client was helpful and cooperative, and they took responsibility for tracing the problem to its root cause. The HVAC contractor and engineer who designed the system got involved. It was determined that the air handling system in one section of the facility wasn’t functioning properly, and the issue was addressed.
Often, the solution is much simpler. I visited a client whose employees were concerned about an unusual, lingering odor. They were convinced that an expensive and far-ranging air quality monitoring program was needed. We learned that the graphics department in an adjacent office (connected to the same ventilation system) was using a new type of spray adhesive. They agreed to stop using it, and the problem was solved immediately.
This is a complicated topic, and there is certainly a time and place for calling in a trained professional. But you don’t need to be an expert to do an initial assessment of your facility’s air quality. Start by trusting your eyes, ears, and common sense.
- Look at the work setting. Are there protocols for maintenance, such as changing air filters? Any obvious signs of exposure or concern?
- Listen to your employees. Are they comfortable? Do the temperatures and humidity levels seem appropriate? Any complaints about strange smells, or possible allergens?
- Be aware of updates to the environment. Has anything changed, such as a new cleaning service, or the opening of a nearby construction site?
As I write this, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and offices nationwide are preparing their strategy for reopening.While it is very likely that property managers, tenants, and employees will take a more active interest in indoor air quality and air circulation, the main common-sense principles will remain largely the same. Be mindful of ways to minimize risks, but also be cautious of unsolicited advertisements for duct-cleaning and disinfection services and equipment. There will always be someone willing to sell you something that you may not need.
Tom Burgess, MS, CSP, CIH, serves as Client Manager, Industrial Hygiene and Safety for T&M Associates, a leading national consulting, environmental, engineering, technical services, and construction management company.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.