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The benefits of improving air quality in the workplace: steps to take


  1. With all the focus on air pollution in the outside environment, the benefits of improving workplace air quality are often overlooked. We outline how to evaluate your workplace air quality and address any air quality problems.

Agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have monitored air quality for decades. Particles and allergens contribute to outdoor air pollution that has been attributed to respiratory diseases, such as asthma and lung cancer. Other potential problems include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, heart disease, throat problems, and various allergy symptoms.

Improving Workplace Air Quality

In recent years, workplace air quality and indoor air pollution have increasingly been a source of concerns regarding public health. Some of the leading indoor irritants include radon, pet dander, dust mites, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, secondhand smoke, asbestos, and more. Efforts have increased to reduce moisture and humidity levels that cause mold and mildew by using dehumidifiers, exhaust fans, and improved ventilation systems.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in paints and adhesives were identified and low-VOC products developed. Like exposure to pollen when outdoors, indoor environments can be adversely impacted by carpets, kerosene heaters, and tobacco smoke. Many older buildings contain harmful chemicals from lead paint and have concerns related to gas stoves.

COVID raised awareness of bacteria and viruses in HVAC systems increasing demand for air purifiers and air filters. Moving forward, indoor air quality should be among the priorities of facility managers and building owners.

What Is A Pollutant?

A pollutant is defined as something that pollutes, which in this context is a substance that creates physical impurity or environmental contamination. The EPA explains that pollutants harm indoor workplace air quality, meaning the air inside a structure or building. When pollutants exist in the air, they pose a risk to the comfort and the health of occupants.

The presence of indoor air pollutants might not always be apparent to those within the structure. In some cases, immediate effects are experienced including irritation to the eyes or throat, dizziness, or sudden fatigue. Many health problems caused by pollution are the result of long-term exposure and may not develop until years later.

Workplace Pollution Sources

In workplace environments, various sources can emit airborne gases or particles that compromise indoor air quality. These problems are further exacerbated when the interior of the facility is inadequately ventilated. Insufficient indoor ventilation does not allow for fresh outdoor air to enter and dilute the severity of the harmful pollutants.

Likewise, poor ventilation systems fail to properly expel the existing indoor air, such as opening a window may allow. The concentrations of many kinds of pollutants are potentially increased in workplace air quality when the indoor temperatures or humidity levels are high. Source of indoor air pollution include:

  • Appliances or equipment that using fuel-burning combustion
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Asbestos within insulation
  • Some materials used in the installation of flooring or carpeting
  • Cleaning and maintenance products and supplies

Familiarizing Yourself With Indoor Air Pollutants

It is possible that types of indoor air pollution are actually caused by outdoor (external) sources. One example is radon, which the EPA has determined to be the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Overall, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer among the U.S. population.

Part of the difficulty in coping with radon as a pollutant result because this radioactive gas can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted. Radon exists naturally across the U.S. resulting from breathing in airborne uranium contained in rock, soil, and water. It can become a problem in residential or commercial buildings of virtually any kind.

Detection of radon requires a special method of testing that is conducted on the lower floors of a structure. Fortunately, the testing process is relatively simple and inexpensive; however, could be potentially overlooked. Systems that reduce radon have proven to be effective in eliminating the gas almost entirely.

Another group of chemicals that can negatively affect workplace air quality are inherently toxic pesticides used for pest control. Some of the most commonly encountered types include insecticides and disinfectants, the latter of which might exist in commercial cleaning products. Surprisingly, up to 80% of human exposure to pesticides happens when indoors resulting from sprays, powder, foggers, and such.

Indoor Air Pollutants to Watch Out For

Another challenging category of workplace air quality pollutants are biological contaminants that result from many sources. These include bacteria, viruses, molds, mildew, and pollen, among several others. Systems that handle air can become contaminated and quickly serve as breeding grounds and then a means of distributing pollutants.

A strong correlation exists between reducing relative humidity and slowing the growth of biological contaminants. Wet surfaces, materials damaged by water, and pools of standing water are among the largest problems that bolster humidity. Many biological pollutants create allergic reactions including pneumonitis, rhinitis, and forms of asthma.

Meanwhile, airborne transmission occurs causing illnesses such as influenza and measles. Molds and mildew emit toxins that create reactions in the forms of shortness of breath, watery eyes, coughing, sneezing, etc. In larger ventilation systems within commercial buildings, microorganisms may result in symptoms that are problematic to those with sensitivities.

How To Evaluate Your Workplace Pollutants

Any adverse health effects among building occupants serve as an indicator of indoor workplace air quality concerns. New tenants or employees with sensitivities might notice an onset of symptoms. As we mentioned with radon, challenges may exist in clearly identifying the sources of pollution.

An excellent starting point for potentially identifying these problems in workplace air quality involves assessing the ventilation—or lack of ventilation. Perhaps a lack of airflow and accumulation of moisture and humidity is creating condensation of walls or windows? Often stuffy air and odors are an indication of a problem that might be most detectable when entering from outside.

Conducting an initial workplace air quality walkthrough is critical, which should involve asking for any thoughts among building occupants regarding potential sources. The evaluating process may progress to creating a hypothesis and eliminating possible sources. Altering the pollutant pathway is helpful, such as by changing the settings on the HVAC system to evaluate conditions.

Sources Of Indoor Air Pollution

1: Inhalation – Breathing In Contaminated Air

While breathing air passes through the airways and into the lungs where an exchange of gases occurs. One key problem when breathing in pollutants is that the respiratory system interacts with other key functions. For example, the circulatory system provides the blood needed to deliver oxygen throughout the body.

When the air we breathe in contains pollutants, it can have a broad adverse impact. The respiratory system influences our immune system, nervous system, and ultimately interacts with tissues and organs throughout the body.

Data from the Respiratory Health Association explains that taking in pollutants may create initial irritation such as wheezing or coughing. Regular exposure may progress further (worsen) to result in heart attacks, lung cancer, etc.

2: Sensitizers

Generally speaking, sensitizers are anything that causes inflammation; however, in respiratory terms, sensitizers are inhaled chemicals that create inflammation in the airway. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sub-categorizers sensitizers according to the frequency of occurrence in humans and animals.

Sensitizers can be allergens that result in reactions upon initial or repeated exposure. When exposed to certain chemicals like formaldehyde multiple times, can make you allergic or sensitive to others. This applies to respiratory disorders including asthma and skin-related problems like eczema.

Certain chemicals have no immediate health effects. But if you are exposed to them several times, they can make you allergic or sensitive to other chemicals, often quite suddenly. A classic example is formaldehyde (CH2O). Typical reactions to sensitizers can include skin disorders such as eczema and respiratory disorders such as asthma.

Depending on the chemical, sensitization may generate an allergic response on one person yet have no impact on another. This is because they involve immune responses that are very unpredictable.

3: Absorption

The concept of absorption involves intaking or receiving agents in the form of gases or liquids. To better understand absorption, we look at how the body responds to varying concentrations of carbon monoxide. Most people exposed to low concentrations of carbon monoxide experience symptoms including fatigue and pain in the chest area.

When the body absorbs more moderate concentrations, symptoms including reduced blood flow, blurred vision, and cognitive impairment. In relatively high concentrations, problems could include confusion, poor coordination, and even death.

Symptoms of Exposure to Indoor Air Pollutants

In many cases, individuals with this persistent exposure develop continuous symptoms similar to those associated with a cold. Symptoms may represent somewhat minor or mild irritation eye or throat irritation but can worsen in very polluted environments.

Chronic Disease

The term chronic disease refers to conditions that impede daily life and necessitate medical treatment for more than one year. A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that harmful air has been linked to ischemic heart disease. The condition prevents a sufficient supply of oxygen and blood from traveling to the heart because of arterial narrowing.

Ischemic heart disease, often also referred to as coronary artery disease results in more than one million premature fatalities worldwide. The WHO data suggests that roughly 11% of these deaths are attributed to indoor air pollution. Other chronic conditions stemming from poor indoor air quality include nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers, which occur in the throat and voice box.

Skin And Respiratory Reaction

Somewhat surprisingly, skin-related health conditions may also result from exposure to polluted indoor air. Atopic dermatitis (Eczema) is a chronic condition characterized by “flare-up” inflammation that creates itchy and red patches of skin. Despite being largely a genetic problem, polluted air and other environmental conditions are known to be triggers and to exacerbate symptoms.

Some of the leading pollutants associated with skin conditions include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers). People are unlikely to notice that these gases and very small particles for a microlayer of harmful buildup. The pollution affects the skin by disrupting the natural protective layer and making it susceptible to UV radiation, pathogens, etc.

Chronic respiratory conditions such as obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are also linked to airborne toxicity. Traditionally a condition associated with smoking, COPD may result from fuel combustion and emissions related to materials used in construction.

Lung cancer, another leading respiratory condition, can also develop from prolonged exposure to indoor pollutants. The most common sources are carcinogens including coal, wood, charcoal, or kerosene that are used in cooking.


A carcinogen is generally defined as any substance with the capability of causing cancer. VOCs are among the leading causes that contribute to the problem in indoor settings, such as benzene or formaldehyde. The previously mentioned radon gas is a known carcinogen most heavily concentrated in below ground or first floor levels of a building.

Chronic respiratory problems attributed to the presence of asbestos have dramatically declined in the U.S. based on public health measures. However, occupational exposure to asbestos could be a lingering cancer-causing problem in older buildings undergoing major construction projects.

The Importance Of Ventilation

In a large commercial facility, a high-quality indoor air system should allow good ventilation. Much of the ventilation plan centers on the facility’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Each business is required to secure proper working conditions for its employees by providing an AC unit in their workplace. This can be achieved by contacting a professional AC installation company. Other considerations include the physical layout and design, as well as properly managing the sources of pollutants.

HVAC systems are critical because they are composed of ductwork that is already used to heat and cool the facility. In limited cases, the HVAC may be a source of pollution, which can be worsened when air filters are not maintained. If HVAC filters become contaminated, clogged, or water-damaged, the system acts to promote indoor air pollution.

Addressing Indoor Air Pollutants With Ventilation

Maintaining workplace air quality is needed, particularly in areas such as office environments where occupancy is dense. At the same time, fresh air acts to dilute the concentration of pollutants. Efforts must also prevent the system from taking in outdoor pollutants inside and distributing them throughout a facility.

Preventing intrusion from outdoor pollutants generally requires some form of filtration. Pollution in the forms of gases or chemicals is among the most problematic and needs specific filtration solutions. The interior layout of a commercial environment also represents a potential hindrance to the delivery of fresh air and ventilation.

Furniture and other large equipment positioned in front of a heating or cooling vent can impede efficiencyof workplace air quality. Electronic equipment that generates heat should be positioned away from thermostats that the system uses for assessing temperature, humidity levels, etc. For example, a thermostat near large pieces of heat-generating equipment causes the system to work harder to keep the conditions cool.

HVAC systems must be properly maintained by qualified service personnel to optimize performance and maintain their serviceable lifespan. A preventative maintenance program with management oversight is critical to any broad indoor air quality strategy. Other possible structural features that may spread pollutants include stairways, elevator shafts, and voids that allow utility access.

Improving Indoor Air Quality Through Source Control

To improve indoor qualityworkplace air quality, it is generally recommended that comprehensive measures are implemented. The first critical step is to identify the source and either remove the problem or create some physical barrier of protection. Next, any remaining concentrations generated by the source can be further reduced through enhanced ventilation. After diluting the concentration of a pollutant with ventilation, filtration can be the final layer of defense. Filtration involves physically capturing or diverting harmful pollutant materials.

Examples of Controls for Common Pollutants

  • Regularly clean ductwork
  • Prevent microbial development on all equipment and components exposed to water such as cooling tower and drainage pans
  • Regular maintenance of the HVAC system to prevent dispersion (distribution) of pollutants
  • Prohibit smoking
  • Ensure that vehicle exhaust is not flowing inside from shipping and receiving docks
  • Installation and maintenance of filters

How Can You Measure the Workplace Air Quality?

Indoor air quality is commonly assessed by the detection of odors, the presence of dust, or staining. The existence of sanitation problems is a likely indicator of necessary remedial action. The presence of mold is always a clear sign of a problem.

Use carbon dioxide detectors at various locations. Bring in specialists as needed including conducting radon testing, measuring and tracking temperature using a thermograph, and equipment for measuring airborne particles.

The Benefits of Improving Air Quality

Good indoor air quality creates benefits that exceed preventing allergic reactions, chronic disease, or exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens. Building occupants appreciate an environment that is comfortable and healthy. Clean air has also been linked to increased cognitive function.

Improved cognition may result in greater retention of information and the ability to remain highly focused, which enhances work performance.  The phenomenon is believed to result from a stable flow of oxygen, reduced blood pressure, stronger immunity, and reduced levels of stress.

Managerial Practices to Prevent Exposure to Indoor Pollutants

Facility owners, business managers, and maintenance professionals should develop an indoor air quality (IAQ) profile. An IAQ profile provides a current overview of the building’s characteristics, equipment, functions, occupancy, and other key information.

The IAQ also establishes a baseline, or point of reference, for measuring the effectiveness of your efforts. The document must also contain detailed maintenance guidelines and schedules. It is critical to ensure the IAQ profile is used in establishing the budget for this activity.

Industry-Leading Commercial Cleaning, Maintenance, and Environmental Service Organization

The seasoned team of professionals with Servi-Tek Facility Solutions continues to provide top-quality services for managers and owners of commercial facilities. We were recently accredited by the Global BioRisk Advisory Council (GBAC) for demonstrating excellence in the latest cleaning and disinfection guidelines and mastery of analyzing risks and creating recovery plans associated with pollutants and microbial pathogens. We encourage you to contact us today for a consultation.

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