Indoor air quality can affect an individual’s health, comfort, and ability to work. Illnesses such as allergies, stress, cold, and influenza are common symptoms associated with poor IAQ. OSHA provides Indoor Air Quality guidelines for commercial and institutional buildings to help identify possible sources of poor IAQ, develop a contingency plan to control a hazard that may arise, and have a plan for preventative maintenance.
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Many common IAQ problems are associated with heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, overcrowding, moisture incursion and dampness, presence of outside air pollutants, and the presence of internally generated contaminants, off-gassing from materials in the building, and use of mechanical equipment. These pollutants, typically fall into three basic categories: biological, chemical, and particle.
Biological can result in excessive concentrations of bacteria, viruses, fungi, dust mites, animal dander, and pollen from inadequate maintenance and housekeeping, water spills, insufficient humidity control, condensation, or water intrusion through leaks in the building envelope or flooding
Sources of chemical pollutants (gases and vapors) include emissions from products used in the building (e.g., office equipment; furniture, wall and floor coverings; pesticides; and cleaning and consumer products), accidental spills of chemicals, products used during construction activities such as adhesives and paints, and gases such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and nitrogen dioxide, which are products of combustion.
Particles are solid or liquid, non-biological substances that are light enough to be suspended in the air. Dust, dirt, or other substances may be drawn into the building from outside. Particles can also be produced by activities that occur in structures such as construction, sanding wood or drywall, printing, copying, and operating equipment.
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Much focus has been on the Covid-19 Pandemic as it has been able to spread rapidly throughout organizations. Still, it is also important to highlight that between 8,000 and 18,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized yearly with Legionnaries’ Disease, and the number of Legionnaires’ cases reported has been steadily increasing over the last two decades, according to the CDC.
Legionella bacteria are commonly spread through airborne water droplets, which are inhaled or aspired. Although the illness can affect occupants year-round, it is most prevalent during summer and early fall. Rising temperatures produce more virulent strains of the potentially lethal disease. Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease can be abdominal pain, chills, confusion, coughing, diarrhea, fever, and shortness of breath. If multiple workers experience symptoms, illness, or have shared complaints at the same time, a safety and health professional should inspect for IAQ.
Ensuring Good Air Quality
Good IAQ should include comfortable temperature and humidity, adequate supply of fresh outdoor air, and control of pollutants from inside and outside of the building. Worksites should have routine checks on temperature, humidity airflow, odors, water damage, leaks, and pest droppings within the workspace. A preventive maintenance program should be established based on the systems recommended maintenance schedule outlined by the architect or engineer, the manufacturer, or an HVAC professional. Regular preventive maintenance not only ensures that systems are operating correctly, but also can result in cost savings, improved operating efficiency, and increased worker productivity.
Workplaces must provide a safe and healthy work environment for all workers, and workers must also be aware of their rights and must be conscious of their environment and how it relates to or affects their health at all times. Workplace safety and health include IAQ. Prevention is always better than cure.