A Story About Indoor Air Quality

The quality of the air we breathe at work has obvious ramifications linked to our health. Although this includes both outdoor and indoor environments, I want to talk about the indoor ones today.

Offices, factories and similar indoor workplaces typically have some type of air handling equipment. Its basic purpose is to provide clean air at a comfortable temperature. Some are very complex while others are simple mechanical ventilation. However, problems can arise when these systems are altered.

A coworker of mine, Mel Trefethen, recently told me about a building owner who tried to conserve energy by reducing the amount of fresh air added into the building. By recirculating more air, less energy is needed to heat or cool. It also increases the amount of carbon dioxide and other contaminants.

Employees began to develop dry, itchy, watery eyes, runny noses, and headaches. These symptoms occur when carbon dioxide levels reach 800 to 1,000 parts per million. Even though this is well below the OSHA permissible exposure limit of 5,000 parts per million, the symptoms and discomfort, in this case, were real.

Preventive maintenance of HVAC systems is critical in minimizing indoor air quality issues at any time. And what this building owner did not know was that special efforts need to be taken when you decrease the system’s energy use.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has published a wonderful guide for building owners titled: Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers

This publication provides background information, sources of indoor air contaminants, survey strategies, control methods, and many forms and checklists to help identify and mitigate potential indoor air quality problems.

Occasionally, unintended consequences can happen when trying to do the right thing, such as conserving energy. Proper planning and preparation can eliminate harmful outcomes and create a safe, healthy, and energy efficient work environment instead.