Air Quality Problems

Let’s talk about air. As a species endemic to planet earth, our respiratory systems are of critical importance to our continued existence. Put simply, we need to breathe to survive. But breathing itself has become a laboured exercise (forgive the pun) in a modern world rife with pollution and dangerous gas emissions. We have created and designed systems to filter and purify the air that we breathe, and many of these systems are common to the modern facility.

As facility managers will know, air quality plays an important role in compliance with health and safety codes across the United Kingdom (and most other countries).

Why is air quality so important?

In recent years there has been a larger focus on issues which impact the workplace environment and their relativity to air quality. Indoor air pollution is becoming a serious concern for buildings and FMs across the board. This pollution could be a mixture of pollutants generated inside the building; pollutants generated outside the building and are carried in and natural radon gas that enters buildings from the ground.

There are many pollutants, but in essence, they are the following:

  • Nitrogen Oxides
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Environmental Tobacco Smoke
  • Radon
  • Allergens
  • Volatile Organic Compounds and Ozone

What are the legislative requirements concerning indoor air quality?

Under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Occupiers Liability Act 1984, an employer has a duty of care to ensure that a safe and healthy environment is provided. The Approved Code of Practice accompanying the Workplace Regulations, states that indoor air quality should be at least equal to, but ideally better than, the air outside your building. HSE document EH40 contains a list of maximum exposure limits and occupational exposure standards for specific gases as required by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations.

How do you establish whether indoor air quality is good or inferior?

In 1991 the House of Commons Environment Committee’s Sixth Report on Indoor Pollution recommended “MOT” style assessments of air quality within buildings.  These assessments should cover:

  • Outside air: Types and amounts of dust, bacteria and gases should be measured prior to being filtered, heated or chilled.  This will act as a benchmark to demonstrate that the air inside your building is at least equal to the air outside.
  • Indoor air: Dust and bacteria should be measured in the workplace, to ensure that the filters are removing the majority of the contaminants from the outside air.  
  • Ventilation rates should also be measured, to ensure that they are satisfactory and are therefore removing contaminants such as carbon dioxide.
  • Specific gases, like carbon monoxide and ozone, should be monitored to ensure that the levels present are within the occupational exposure limits established by the HSE.

The rise of SBS

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a term used to describe buildings in which there is a prevalent range of symptoms that cause discomfort and a sense of illness, rather than an actual illness itself. It is an imprecise term which attempts to describe a unique phenomenon; a phenomenon with no single cause or substantial evidence to quantify it.

Symptoms of SBS include:

  • Eye, nose and throat irritation
  • A sensation of dry mucous membranes and skin
  • Wheezing, a hoarse voice, coughs and frequent respiratory infections
  • Skin rashes and itching
  • Headaches and mental fatigue
  • Nausea and dizziness

Common features of buildings with SBS include:

  • Forced ventilation and air-conditioning
  • Lightweight construction
  • Fabric-covered surfaces indoors (like carpets)
  • Homogenous thermal environments, overly-warm and energy-efficient
  • Air-tight rooms with no ventilation

It’s getting harder and harder to breathe

Air pollution is becoming a leader in environmental causes of death, contributing to shorter lifespans and equalling about five per cent of fatalities around the world. In the UK alone, long-term exposure has led to approximately 29,000 deaths a year.

It is estimated that the total healthcare cost of air pollution is expected to be £1.6 billion between 2017 and 2025. In 2017 alone, two of the main airborne pollutants, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, cost the NHS and social care in England nearly £43 million.

Indoor air quality is known to lead to headaches, lethargy, sore throats and eye or skin irritation; all of which result in lower levels of productivity. One Harvard report found that employees working in places with poor indoor air quality learn more slowly, think less clearly and have worsened memories.

On the other hand, it is estimated that decent air quality can boost productivity in offices by ten per cent while cutting sick leave by up to thirty-nine per cent. As such, it is more than just an issue of health, it is an issue of best-interest for any business to maintain optimum air quality standards.

What can be done?

Facility managers have a number of options available, but the most common advice is this:

  1. Carry out regular workplace surveys on the employees to determine the prevalence of symptoms and identify where those symptoms are coming from.
  2. Regularly check the building’s cleanliness, including vacuum cleaners’ effectiveness and HVAC filter cleanliness.
  3. Make sure all cleaning materials are being properly used in all the right places.
  4. Check the operation of all HVAC systems.
  5. Check all air filters, humidifiers, cooling towers and any other relevant equipment.
  6. Ensure that your HVAC systems are being regularly maintained by skilled personnel.

Do ventilation systems need to be cleaned every year?

Although the Workplace Regulations state that ventilation systems should be kept clean, there is no mention of the frequency of said cleaning. You simply need to demonstrate to the enforcement agencies that you are monitoring the quality of the air (and that your indoor air quality is good), to comply with these Regulations.

The results of an Assurity Consulting air quality audit will provide you with the management information to prove to the staff that the air they breathe is safe and healthy. When air quality is less than satisfactory, there is usually a simple and cost-effective solution, such as increasing the fresh air ventilation rates.

Who should carry out an indoor air quality audit?

Voltix Services is accredited to carry out regular swab testing and maintenance, as well as an audit of your air quality, in order to assist your facility in maintaining the highest levels of health and safety and ensuring statutory compliance with all relevant legislature.