Breathing space? Why our office air could be harming us

Why our office air could be harming usAs reported last week, the vast majority of office workers might prefer to work outdoors; but the office is where we spend most of our working lives. Indeed, for an average of eight hours a day, five days a week, office workers can reliably be found in the same surroundings – at a familiar desk, with familiar colleagues, within a familiar building. Perhaps as a result of this, too few of us stop to consider the risks of working indoors, assuming that the danger of serious harm is the sole preserve of outdoor working sites. Nonetheless, office work contains risks which are entirely its own. For example, while outdoor workers benefit from physical exercise, sunshine (occasionally), and fresh air, office workers perform their daily duties in a space where air is continuously recirculated, posing numerous dangers.  Indeed, indoor air pollution is actually a major public health problem, posing a myriad of risks as dangerous particles accumulate in office air.

The medical journal ‘The Lancet’ suggested that tiny amounts of chemicals escaping from paints, carpets, office supplies, photocopiers, and other sources ‘may be combining to make the air hazardous’ in offices. According to work-health specialists Mark Cullen and Kathleen Kreiss in the textbook Occupational Health (Lippincott, 2000), nearly all cases of workplace asthma are caused by indoor air pollution. These incidences of illness due to lax ventilation standards are increasing as our offices become more modernised. Anyone with an interest in the health and safety of office workers should therefore consider these five main locations of workplace pollutants, and the chemicals involved.:

  • Office Equipment – There are a number of respiratory dangers linked to even the most seemingly basic of office tools. One example is photocopiers, which are known for two separate dangers. One is the emission of ozone, which can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract over prolonged exposure – researchers in Thailand found in 2011[1] that ozone is a natural function of an electro-photographic process used by most photocopiers. The substance may also be emitted from corona wires in the copiers. Furthermore, ink toners which are also found in photocopiers commonly use dangerous substances like methyl alcohol – a solvent which can irritate and dry the skin eyes, nose and throat, and, in high amounts, may cause dizziness and even blindness. Other more commonplace examples include solvents such as glue, rubber cement, correctional fluid and inks, all of which can cause damage when persistently inhaled.
  • New Furnishings/Renovation Work – Many people who work in an office year round will come into work one day to find workmen performing maintenance or renovation, which might involve installing shiny new furniture. Though a contingent risk, when this does happen, a variety of solvents are often used. This is particularly so in common renovation tasks such as roofing, cleaning, and painting. Formaldehyde is one of the most common pollutants in office buildings found in furniture, new carpets, particle board, plywood and other products, and can cause a number of respiratory issues.
  • Exhaust And Cigarette Smoke – Whilst many office workers wouldn’t expect to face either of these dangers working indoors, in reality poorly placed air-intake vents can permit their entry into the workplace. Diesel exhaust is a particularly dangerous pollutant, containing carbon dioxide (linked to dizziness, headaches and nausea) and known carcinogens.
  • Biological Agents – Under the Control of Substances Hazardous To Health (COSHH) Act of 2002, biological agents are classed as ‘a micro-organism, cell culture, or human endoparasite… which may cause infection, allergy, toxicity, or otherwise create a hazard to human health’. Viruses, mould, fungi, pollen, bacteria, and even insects such as dust mites all class as biological agent pollutants, and travel through office air to be inhaled by workers. Bacteria, fungi and moulds may flourish in improperly maintained air ducts, air conditioners, air filters, carpets, humidifiers, and poorly ventilated places where moisture is present, like bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. Improper ventilation may make it easier to contract an infection from an ill colleague.
  • Maintenance Work – Chemicals such as ammonia, solvents, paint strippers and cleansers are widely used in maintenance of office equipment. Exposure to many of these substances can lead to respiratory irritation, chronic lung disease, and eye irritation. Ventilation systems can easily circulate these chemicals, spreading risk around the office.

With an awareness of the five main dangers of dirty air in the workplace, the next step to take is to examine the measures by which these hazards may be avoided – starting with the basics. Under the 2002 COSHH act, all workplaces need an ‘adequate supply of fresh air’ and a ‘working system of air movement’.

Air supply can be increased by opening or unblocking all sources of fresh air and also by cleaning and maintaining a ventilation system. Whether the building you work in is new or old, ventilation may be lacking, and so a thorough evaluation should test its quality, beginning with tests on whether and when it is operational. Firstly, the most important question – do you have a ventilation system at all? A room without ventilation to replace air is known as a dead space and will often accumulate pollutants. In almost all cases, a ventilation system is a necessary investment. However, a ventilation system can only have limited results without a working system for its use and maintenance.

Sadly, many business owners just assume a ventilation system will manage itself once installed. It is worth taking the time to consider exactly how your system works, and how it fits worker needs. Many systems use a timer to stop at a particular time, which may endanger workers who may stay late or do night shifts. .

It is also worth considering the strength of the ventilation used: if your workplace has a relatively high amount of pollutants, it may need a stronger or more constant ventilation system. Finally, think about the position of vents – if an office has multiple rooms, it is worth checking that there are an adequate number of vents in each room.

Use of contaminants must also be limited as much as possible, with alternatives used where available – for example, the choosing of water-based paints over oil-based. Any damp areas – which typically foster the growth of fungi, mould, and bacteria – should be regularly cleaned and dried to prevent pollutant buildup.

The ventilation system should be regularly checked and cleaned itself, and a ventilation air should be consulted semi-regularly to check up on air movement and recommend any improvements for problematic areas. A final measure is to incorporate some plants in your workspace design.

Whilst many people think plants are just for decoration in an office, the truth is they serve a much more important purpose, particularly where air quality is concerned. Indeed, research by theUniversity of Exeter has shown that “allowing staff to make design decisions in a workspace enhanced with office plants can increase well-being by 47%, creativity by 45% and productivity by 38%.”

Plants are also known to filter out potentially harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde and benzene. Although these steps may seem costly, they are far cheaper than having an employee develop a serious condition which could have been avoided had the employer taken more care, resulting in complex and damaging legal proceedings. It is easy to presume that an employer will be aware of how their ventilation system works and their responsibility to maintain it.

Unfortunately, at Asons we have seen time and time again seen that many employers are unaware of, or negligent to these dangers – resulting in costs to both them and their workers. Even something as fundamental as the air we breathe can be a risk to us if proper precautions are not taken – make sure your workplace doesn’t suffer from lacking one of the most basic and fundamental needs of its workers.

References [1] Ozone Level Emitted From Photocopiers and Its Exposure, 2011, Aungsiri Tipayarom and Danutawat Tipayarom.


Richard SaintRichard Saint is a marketing executive at Asons Solicitors