How to Improve Workplace Air Quality
Office Air Quality Guide
As a building owner, facility manager, or employer, it’s up to you to maintain a healthy workplace for employees and occupants, especially in the post-COVID era where everyone is extra conscious about their health and worried about working indoors. In this new work-from-home age, if you want to invite employees back into the office, you must convince them that it’s safe to do so.
This starts by improving office air quality. We breathe 2,000 gallons of air each day, and 90% of it is indoors. What’s more, indoor air can have 2-5 times more pollutants than outdoor air. We’re not just talking about viruses here, but everything from dust, to carpeting, to printer toner. Poor indoor air can sicken building occupants, reduce productivity, and damage HVAC equipment. This is true whether you run a small office or a large company.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to “provide workers with a safe workplace that does not have any known hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious injury.” That includes keeping workplace air quality at safe levels.
To help you keep your building healthy, we’ll outline some of the sources of poor indoor air quality (IAQ) and the impacts they can have on your building occupants. Then, we’ll make some recommendations for mitigation.
What Causes Indoor Air Pollution?
Indoor air pollution comes from many internal and external sources. Some examples include:
- Printer Toner
In general, indoor air pollutants can be grouped into three main categories: Physical, non-organic matter like dust; Chemicals like those found in pesticides, sprays, etc.; and Biological, which include bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Office and industrial environments are prone to many of these pollutants due to more people working in closer proximity, various chemicals used in cleaning or production, and dust. It’s also possible for pollutants to enter from outside—perhaps a nearby construction site or exhaust from cars on an expressway.
The Impact of Workplace Air Quality
Poor indoor air can impact your employee wellbeing in many ways. It can cause headaches, sneezing, coughing, fatigue, nausea, and more. There is even a condition known as sick building syndrome where individuals suffer a range of symptoms while in a building that resolve once they leave. These symptoms are often generic and nonspecific, and individuals may become frustrated not knowing the cause. Of course, it could also be easier to catch specific viruses like Influenza or COVID-19 in a building with many people.
Obviously, you should care about employees’ health purely for its own sake. However, sick employees can also hurt your productivity. They may start taking more sick days, which will reduce their output. Plus, even if they’re working, the feeling of being sick will no doubt distract them and reduce concentration, which could impact their quality of work.
Beyond hurting your employees and productivity, poor IAQ can damage your HVAC equipment. If too much dust and other pollutants get drawn into your heating and cooling system, they’ll cause it to work harder to maintain a comfortable temperature. This will not only increase energy costs for your building but shorten the equipment’s lifespan. What’s more, if the equipment can’t maintain a comfortable temperature, then building occupants will feel even more miserable.
Think of Visitors
Remember, poor workplace air quality impacts everyone in a building, including visitors. This is especially pertinent to client-facing small businesses who may get regular visits from customers, business partners, and executives.
It could be that the people who spend all day in your building don’t notice a foul odor because they are desensitized. However, a client walking off the street could become disgusted by it. Sooner or later, your business reputation could take a hit for something preventable.
Improving Workplace Air Quality
The first, and simplest, line of defense against poor office air quality is making sure you change your furnace or A/C air filter regularly. The whole point of air filters is to capture particles from the air so they don’t damage your HVAC system or get recirculated around the building. If you do nothing else to improve IAQ, change your air filter.
Ventilation involves any method of exhausting stale, indoor air and bringing in fresh, outdoor air. The most basic method of workplace ventilation is opening a window, but then you can’t control the quality or quantity of air coming from the outside. Another option is an exhaust fan, which gets rid of indoor air but doesn’t replace it.
A more complete approach involves installing a properly sized air exchanger, which exchanges indoor air for outdoor air. Beyond this are heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) and energy recovery ventilators (ERVs). HRVs work the same way as air exchangers, except they also condition the outdoor air before it enters your building so it’s not too hot or cold. ERVs add the extra benefit of maintaining moisture levels so the incoming air isn’t too dry or wet. Learn more about HRVs vs ERVs.
While ventilation can improve workplace health by eliminating polluted air, using air purification physically cleans up the air without removing it. Air purifiers can either capture or inactivate contaminants.
Air cleaners are installed on your building’s HVAC system and capture particles from the air as it passes through. The size of particles they can capture depends on a measurement called MERV. The higher the MERV rating, the smaller the particles that can be caught. There are also electronic air cleaners that use electricity to attract and trap pollutants.
An increasingly popular option, ultraviolet-C (UV-C) lamps use ultraviolet light to kill harmful organic particles in the air. Depending on intensity and length of exposure, these lamps can be effective at destroying many common bacteria and viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
UV-C lamps come in standalone and HVAC-installed varieties. The most common method for commercial and industrial applications is to install the lamps in the building's HVAC system so they can kill organic particles in the passing air. It’s important to remember that UV-C lamps are not a cure-all, and they need to be sized and installed correctly to work properly.
The third component of indoor air quality is maintaining proper humidity levels. Ideally, the humidity inside a building should be between 40%-60%. Any less than this, and the air is too dry. Any more than this, and it’s too wet.
Overly dry air, most common during winter, has been linked to dry skin, irritated airways, and even compromised immune defenses. Installing a humidifier in your building’s HVAC system can help add some much-needed moisture to your office.
The opposite is often true during summer, where humid air is linked to mold growth and general discomfort. In this case, a dehumidifier will remove the moisture and bring humidity down to desirable levels. Another option is to use dry mode on a mini split system to gradually remove humidity while cooling the air--the best of both worlds!
A Healthy Workplace Begins with IAQ
Sure, you can offer your employees wellness incentives and rewards, but you can’t control what they do with them. What you can control is your building’s indoor air quality, which could be what’s making employees unwell in the first place. So, seize the opportunity to make your indoor space the healthiest it can be.
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*Please note that eComfort, and its parent company, Power Equipment Direct, do not make any specific claims in regards to virus abatement. Each application is unique and requries a certified, licensed HVAC professional to diagnose and remedy each application. Please refer to the speficiations and manuals on product pages to learn more.