Special Topics in Safety Management

How Clean Is the Air Your Employees Breathe?

Some experts believe that more people may suffer from indoor air pollution than outdoor air pollution. How about your employees?

Most Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. Poor indoor air quality can cause all kinds of ailments and discomforts, including many that can mimic symptoms of allergies, stress, colds, and flu.

Indoor air quality in the workplace is affected by many factors, including:

  • The site of your building
  • Its original design
  • Renovations
  • Maintenance of air-handling systems
  • How densely the building is occupied
  • Activities that take place inside
  • The level of satisfaction of employees with their environment

According to OSHA, many indoor air quality problems are associated with improperly operated and maintained HVAC systems, overcrowding, radon, moisture incursion and dampness, and the presence of outside air pollutants. Then there are the internally generated contaminants like cleaning supplies, aerosol products, mechanical contaminants, and improper temperature and humidity levels.


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Health Effects

OSHA says that ignoring indoor air quality problems can be costly to workers and employers. Health effects from indoor air pollutants can be felt soon after exposure or years later. These include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headache; dizziness; rashes; muscle pain; and fatigue.

Asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis are also associated with poor indoor air quality. Personal factors that influence how an employee will react to an exposure include age, frequency and duration of the exposure, and preexisting health conditions, especially asthma and allergies.

Indoor air pollutants typically fall into three categories—biological, chemical, and particle pollutants.

  • Biological pollutants include bacteria, viruses, fungi, dust mites, animal dander, and pollen. Dampness in buildings has been linked with significant health effects. Varieties of bacteria and fungi, especially mold, can contribute to asthma, cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, congestion, sneezing, and sinusitis.
  • Chemical pollutants include gases and vapors from products used in the building. Other sources of chemical contaminants are construction activities and gases such as carbon monoxide.
  • Particle pollutants include solid or liquid substances like dust or dirt that can be drawn into the building from the outside. Particles can also be produced by activities such as construction, sanding, printing, copying, and operating equipment.

Common Culprits

The following are major indoor air pollutants and their sources:

  • Acetic acid (X-ray development equipment, silicone caulking compounds)
    Carbon dioxide (improperly vented devices, processes, or operations that produce combustion products, human respiration, unvented gas and kerosene appliances)
  • Carbon monoxide (fossil fuel engine exhausts, improperly vented fossil fuel equipment, tobacco smoke)

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  • Formaldehyde (off-gassing from formaldehyde foam insulation, plywood particle board/paneling, carpeting and fabric, glues and adhesives, combustion products)
  • Nitrogen oxides (combustion products from gas furnaces and equipment, welding, gas and diesel engine exhausts)
  • Ozone (copy machines, electrostatic air cleaners, electrical arcing, smog)
  • Radon (ground beneath buildings, building materials, groundwater)
  • Volatile organic compounds (trichloroethylene, benzene, toluene, alcohols, pesticides)
  • Miscellaneous inorganic gases like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide (window cleaners, acid drain cleaners, combustion products)
  • Asbestos (insulation, other building materials)
  • Synthetic fibers (fibrous glass, mineral wool)
  • Microbials (viruses, fungi, mold, bacteria, pollen, mites; air-handling system condensate; cooling towers; water damaged materials; damp organic materials; hot water systems; plants; food products)

Tomorrow, we feature suggestions for managing indoor air quality.