Indoor air quality and the quest for a breath of fresh air in the workplace

indoor air quality

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The modern workplace has to work harder than ever before. It must reflect corporate values, express something of the organisation’s brand, allow people to work to the best of their ability as well as look after their wellbeing, keep touch with the pace of changing technology and meet the demands of an ever changing legislative environment and keep costs down. All of these issues conflate around the challenge of providing a sustainable, comfortable and productive working environment in buildings that are filled with an increasing number of people and computers. It is estimated by the Building Research Establishment that even in a typical office each person and their technology will generate some 1500 W of energy per hour, the equivalent of the sort of fan heater that the EU is now keen to ban outright.

The problem is significantly more acute in working environments such as dealer rooms where people typically use multiple flat screens in large open plan areas with occupancy densities of above 7 square metres per person and where work can carry on around the clock to meet deadlines and to take full advantage of the globalised financial markets.

The added challenge nowadays is how to balance sustainable building design and management with the need to continue to address issues such as air quality, employee comfort, acceptable workplace temperature standards, wellbeing and productivity.

Although there have been several calls for a maximum workplace temperature standard to be officially introduced, there is at present no legal standard in Britain. However, according to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, although it is not an actual statutory limit, the upper allowable temperature in workplaces during working hours should be ‘reasonable’. In addition, guidelines from the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), state that the maximum internal temperature of a workplace should not exceed 25°C for more than five percent of the period that the building is occupied, and shouldn’t rise above 28°C for more than one percent of the time.

In a typical office, heating, ventilation and air conditioning can account for up to 30 per cent of annual electricity consumption. In recent years, the UK has seen a shift in energy-consumption patterns from a winter peak to a summer peak, indicating that people are increasingly more concerned about being too hot in the workplace than too cold. The risks to workers in conditions that are too hot include dehydration, fatigue, increased heart beat, dizziness, fainting; and cramp due to loss of water and salt.

Hot, dry air can increase the risk of eye and throat infections, and breathing problems such as asthma and rhinitis. Additional risks can be related to increased stress levels. Fatigue can also lead to tiredness or lack of concentration, which, apart from having an adverse effect on individual performance, could result in an increased risk of accidents, lowered concentration and motivation and so a downturn in productivity. We used to commonly refer to this slew of symptoms as sick building syndrome but it is used less these days.

The solutions to these issues are complex and need to evolve over time. At the most immediate level, it is important that buildings are designed to be ventilated, cooled and that building systems are well maintained. Systems exist that can achieve these things with little or no energy consumption.

Office fit-out can help to increase air flow and maximise the provision of daylight. It is also essential to specify products that make little or no use of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can contribute to the problems of indoor air quality.

Management and culture also have an important role to play. As we know, movement should be an important part of our daily lives and not just because of the musculo-skeletal benefits. Going outdoors is a great way of filling our lungs with fresh air and our eyes with daylight. The solutions to the challenges we face in our daily working lives aren’t always about the products we buy and don’t always have to cost money. Some of the most important resources we have come free.


03bdbc8Justin Miller is the sales director of office furniture and ergonomics specialist Wellworking