Is office air bad for our health?

‘Volatile compounds may adversely affect worker health and productivity

Is office air bad for our health?

Just being inside a modern office might be detrimental to an employee’s health, according to early conclusions from an ongoing study by Purdue University.

Preliminary results suggest that people are the dominant source of volatile organic compounds in a modern office environment, says Brandon Boor, assistant professor of civil engineering at the West Lafayette, Ind. institution.

“We found levels of many compounds to be 10 to 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. If an office space is not properly ventilated, these volatile compounds may adversely affect worker health and productivity.”

Using a tightly controlled setting in the university’s laboratories, researchers used thousands of sensors or “sniffers” in four open-office simulated spaces.

“The chemistry of indoor air is dynamic. It changes throughout the day based on outdoor conditions, how the ventilation system operates and occupancy patterns in the office,” says Boor.

Volatile organic compounds

The study said volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could potentially be a major contaminant in office settings. These can be found in self-care products such as shampoo and fragrances along with cleaning supplies.

Even within an office setting, there can be both chemical and biological contaminants that build up, says Janet Mannella, vice-president of operations at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton, Ont. 

“Cleaning supplies used in the space or things like server rooms for computers that develop ozone — that impacts air quality. Some of the common health risks would be things like dryness or irritation to the eyes, nose and throat discomfort, dry skin so you create some itching, headaches or fatigue.”

Those obviously can lead to issues such as shortness of breath, nausea or dizziness, she says.

The most “famous or infamous” VOC is probably formaldehyde, according to Miriam Diamond, professor at the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto.

“Formaldehyde — for those of us with long memories — was the compound that pickled the frog that we dissected in school, but it’s a gas and that’s what a volatile organic compound is — it’s something that you can easily smell,” she says.

“But formaldehyde is also released from particle board; anything that uses seeds, binders or resins. Formaldehyde can be higher in areas that have new particle board furniture or new construction particle board because nothing’s made of solid wood anymore… and there have been some studies that have related formaldehyde to cancers.”

No regulations restricting levels of air contamination

Despite the potential risks, no specific regulations exist in Canada that restrict the level of air contamination, say the experts, although workers do enjoy basic protections.

“Employees always have the right to work at a hazard-free environment, and that includes air quality. They have the right to knowledge about what the hazards are in the workspace, and then they have the right to provide a mechanism to report hazards. Indoor air quality is treated like any other hazard, and so part of the internal responsibility system under the Occupational Health and Safety Act is that they have the right to identify those hazards and work with the employer to mitigate the risk,” says Mannella.

Even people breathing can cause issues, especially in an enclosed setting.

“When people exhale carbon dioxide, the buildup of carbon dioxide alone just makes you drowsy,” says Diamond.

“It’s just that there are too many of us stuck in these confined spaces.”

But most of the time, it comes down to “comfort parameters, poor humidity, poor air flow, maybe some odours, but certainly air quality, particularly with seasonal swings and because of financial, budget pullback, maintenance is cut to reduce costs. And, at some point, you end up with an air quality and inequality problem,” says Glyn Jones, a partner at EHS Partnerships in Calgary, a company that conducts indoor air quality investigations for employers.

Governments should play a more active role to help address the issue, he says. 

“The first challenge we have is every province and territory has its own jurisdiction for OHS [occupational health and safety] management. And the general rule is OHS does not manage air quality, it doesn’t set air quality standards for buildings,” says Jones.

“The only body that really sets air quality standards is through the building code, the National Building Code and provincial building codes — all call up design standards for ventilation systems and the design standards are set by the ASHRAE [American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers].” 

But this is compounded because “not all provinces have the same capacity to develop, implement and monitor standards, as we have wealthy provinces and we have less wealthy provinces,” says Diamond.

“We don’t want a patchwork of standards and regulations that affects the health of Canadians.” 

What does protect employees is “a general duty clause, which requires employers to provide a healthy and safe workplace. There isn’t explicit legislation that talks specifically to air so, generally, it falls under the general duty clause and that’s reducing the hazard,” says Mannella.

Combatting the air quality issue

There are many ways to address the issue, say the experts. For one, proper ventilation guarantees good air quality, according to Jones.

“When ventilation rates are insufficient, contaminants that are being brought into the workplace, or that are naturally there, will accumulate to levels that are either uncomfortable or unhealthy,” says Jones.

"This has been going on probably since the 1970s when ASHRAE lowered the design ventilation rate of building in response to the energy crisis of 1973."

Addressing the air quality issue requires proper planning on the part of employers, according to Jones.

“What that study was actually talking about is that, oftentimes, in an office space, no one’s really looking at the ventilation system; mechanically, people are to make sure it’s running, but different things can happen to it so that it’s not delivering as much outside air,” he says. “You’re not getting good dilution of contaminants and so those contaminants can rise and create a problem.”

HR’s role involves reporting, policies

Human resources professionals should understand that they have a duty to have a mechanism to report concerns from employees, says Mannella, “as well as a procedure to follow up on investigation and then, ultimately, corrective action.”

HR should also review a couple of steps, such as engineering controls, “which would be swapping out old infrastructure for new or using new technology like sensors in old buildings to help understand the source of the issue. There are administrative controls, which are obviously policies and procedures, so things like no tobacco at the entrance of a building where people have to come in and out or sensitivity in the workplace.”

And then, of course, there may be the need for people to wear personal protective equipment, she says. 

“In the event that there are chemicals used in the space, there’s obviously some respirators and things like that that they can use to reduce their exposure.

As well, many offices have instituted a no-scent policy, which provides some relief to workers who are overly sensitive to them, says Diamond.

“As far as I understand, we’re not really sure which fragrances can trigger reactions like respiratory reactions, but any time you put a fragrance on, the fragrance is released into the air.”

Ultimately, business imperative is the best argument for ensuring that air quality is good inside an office setting, according to Jones.

“If you’ve got 10 per cent of your employees complaining that the air quality is poor and you have 5,000 employees, you have 500 employees that are complaining and probably not working very hard and so, purely from an efficiency point of view, that’s ultimately the driver for us doing these investigations. Employees complain, complaining employees are not efficient, lack of efficiency cost money, therefore, we should investigate — not because some legislation says so [but] because it’s a reasonable thing to do in response to employees’ concerns.”

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