There’s no OSHA standard for it. And for the most part, you can’t see it or touch it. But the potential risks are significant. We’re talking about indoor air quality (IAQ).
IAQ refers to the quality of the air inside buildings as represented by concentrations of pollutants and thermal conditions like temperature and humidity. These factors affect the health, comfort, and performance of people who work in those buildings. Light and noise are also considered IAQ factors.
3 Types of Pollutants
Indoor air pollutants fall into three basic categories:
- Biological pollutants include excessive concentrations of bacteria, viruses, fungi, dust mites, and pollen. These can result from inadequate maintenance and housekeeping, water spills, inadequate humidity control, condensation, or water introduced through leaks in the building envelope.
- Chemical pollutants are caused by emissions from products used in buildings. Examples are office equipment, furniture, wall and floor coverings, pesticides, and cleaning products. Other sources are accidental chemical spills, construction-related products, and gases that are by-products of combustion (e.g., carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and nitrogen dioxide).
- Particle pollutants are solid or liquid, nonbiological substances light enough to be suspended in air. Among these are dust or dirt drawn from outside. Other particles are produced by activities that take place inside, such as production processes and operating equipment.
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There are three primary methods of reducing indoor air pollutants.
- Source management. This is considered the most effective control method and involves the removal, substitution, and enclosure of sources—for example, installing low-volatile organic compound (VOC) carpets or establishing temporary barriers to contain pollutants during construction.
- Engineering controls. These include local exhaust systems such as a canopy or hood that removes pollutants before they can be dispersed, a well-designed HVAC system to control temperature and humidity, and air cleaning systems that remove particles from the air.
- Administrative controls. These are management activities that keep employees from indoor air hazards. Among them is scheduling work to eliminate or reduce exposure to pollutants. For example, maintenance or cleaning should be scheduled when fewer building occupants are present. Good housekeeping can also help.
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Test Your IAQ IQ
You’ve probably heard the terms “sick building syndrome” and “building-related illness.” But do you know exactly what they mean and how they differ?
- Sick building syndrome is a catchall term that refers to a series of acute complaints for which there is no obvious cause and where medical tests reveal no particular abnormalities. They symptoms appear when individuals are in the building but disappear when they leave. Complaints may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; headache; stuffy nose; mental fatigue; lethargy; and skin irritation. A single cause is seldom identified and complaints may be resolved once building operational problems or occupational activities are corrected. When sick building syndrome is not resolved, problems like absenteeism, reduced work efficiency, and deteriorating employee morale can result.
- Building-related illness refers to an identified condition with a known cause, resulting from exposure to building air. Typical sources are biological, such as humidification systems, cooling tower, drain pans or filters, other wet surfaces, or water-damaged building material. Symptoms may mimic those of the flu, including fever, chills, and cough. Serious lung and respiratory conditions can occur. Building-related illnesses include Legionnaires’ disease, lung inflammation, and humidifier fever.