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Creating a ‘clean air zone’

As more evidence is found that the air quality at work can directly affect health and productivity, Business Specialist at Office Depot, Nigel Crunden suggests ways in which FMs can improve workers’ breathing space

The UK is currently undergoing an air quality crisis. Earlier this month, Britain was issued a “final warning” from the European Commission after it failed to comply with EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Exposure to such pollutants can have a detrimental effect on people’s health, with scientific studies linking long-term particle pollution to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

Whilst the UK’s breach relates to pollutants that were found outside, it has once again highlighted the important relationship between wellbeing and good air quality – whether the air concerned is found outside a building or inside. It is crucial that businesses do not overlook the quality of air found inside its work spaces, as doing so can not only significantly affect an employee’s health, but it can also hinder their comfort and ability to work. It is therefore necessary that facilities managers understand what is meant by good indoor air quality and how it can be improved, as well as knowing any legal obligations that must be adhered to. This will allow them to create a work setting that is healthy and safe for staff.

Although most employees will barely notice when the air inside a building is of a high standard, poor quality air is likely to cause complaints. Common objections will include unpleasant or musty odours, dusty areas, dampness or mould, and a feeling that the building is ‘hot and stuffy’. There may also be a rise in employees getting headaches or feeling tired, which then disappear when they leave work. If FMs notice any of these symptoms, it is very likely that the building is suffering from an air quality problem which should be addressed immediately.

The most common cause of polluted air within a work environment stems from an inadequate ventilation system. A building that lacks a robust ventilation system will considerably restrict fresh air from entering, while a system that is not serviced or maintained properly can trap contaminants. Other causes may include dampness and mould from leaks, overusing cleaning chemicals, and emissions from office equipment, which can all lead to odours and dry or muggy conditions.

Although there is no single test that determines whether a building has an indoor air quality issue and what its cause is, there are other actions that FMs can undertake. Measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as well as the temperature, humidity and air flow will help identify any areas for concern, whilst inspecting ventilation systems could provide a better understanding of the source of the problem. Regular walk-throughs of a building should also be carried out to check for water damage, leaks, dirt and smells.

In addition to carrying out tests, it is essential that FMs are aware of their legal obligation to provide safe ‘working air’ for employees. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations (2002) places a legal obligation on employers to control any substances that are present in the workplace which could be dangerous to a person’s health. Included in its list of hazardous substances are chemicals, fumes, dusts and mists – all of which affect indoor air quality. To ensure businesses are compliant, FMs must regularly carry out a COSHH assessment, which involves identifying substances that have legal exposure limits in workplace air. Failure to carry out such an assessment could result in serious consequences for both the organisation and the individual, including fines and imprisonment.

To improve indoor air quality, the first steps that FMs should take are preventative ones, which involve good ventilation design and building maintenance. However, if this is not possible, there are alternative solutions that businesses can implement. It is essential that filters on heating and cooling systems are cleaned or replaced frequently to prevent pollutants from being reissued into the air. Managers should also reassess all cleaning products that are used, with an aim of introducing non-toxic cleaning agents wherever possible. For a cost-effective resolution, which is quick and simple to implement, air purifiers and plants could be integrated into the work environment to help absorb toxins from the air.

By minimising air contaminants, increasing ventilation and purifying the air, FMs can be confident that their work space is a clean, healthy and safe one for staff. By maintaining high standards with regards to air quality, the likelihood of chronic discomfort amongst workers will be reduced, helping to increase productivity and wellbeing. Although the UK may be suffering from an air pollution crisis outside, businesses needn’t be having a similar problem within their working environment.

About Sarah OBeirne

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