Sick Building Syndrome

Are you feeling off-colour? Have you recently returned to working in an office environment? It may transpire that those headaches bothering you, your general sense of fatigue, dry throat, coughing and other respiratory symptoms, although all symptoms correlating with Covid-19, might well not be Covid-19 at all.

Buildings can have a serious effect on our health (the BMJ lists several here) and with talk of a move towards more open plan office space, we need to be vigilant in ensuring that the quality of indoor air is maintained. Good air circulation and well-maintained filtering systems are key. Poor ventilation, soft furnishings accumulating dust, humidity and temperature fluctuations and flickering lights, all contribute to our general state of feeling unwell. Noise transmission can also be an issue, especially where there are hard surfaces hard and the ceilings are high.

The focus in designing buildings generally has moved very much in favour of a reduced environmental impact. But energy-efficient buildings are airtight by definition, which inevitably leads to an accumulation of air pollutants. Building products and furnishings all give off chemical pollutants known as ‘volatile organic compounds’ (think of the smell of fresh paint or a newly laid carpet) which can seep into the air over several years.

Air tight, air conditioned buildings and especially small work spaces within them, such as meeting rooms, quickly build up with carbon dioxide, just from the occupants breathing. Studies have shown that high levels of CO2 affect our ability to think and can lead to constant and severe headaches.

In addition, buildings that are not well ventilated or do not maintain their ventilation systems, risk a build up in humidity levels which results in mould and bacteria releasing spores into the air. Known as ‘microbial contamination’, it is the musty smell we experience from a cloakroom lacking natural ventilation, or which is not cleaned regularly or thoroughly enough.

Ventilation is key to ensuring our well-being in shared office environments. Venting systems need to be well maintained and ideally work spaces should be naturally ventilated. But maintaining draught-free environments is critical. Plants can help to mitigate some air pollutants, but good overall building maintenance is essential from the outset. Office managers should select furnishings thoughtfully to ensure they are made from chemical-free materials. Ventilation and lighting systems must be carefully considered from the outset and frequently serviced. All this comes at a price. But the accumulated cost of lost work hours through employee sickness far outweighs the cost of ensuring a healthy work environment.

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