Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) and Building-Related Illness (BRI) can result from building deterioration, improper use of the building, flawed design or faulty construction, among other factors. These are big problems that are not easily resolved. However, you can take actions to help counteract Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) concerns caused by these issues. Here are a few remedies to start with:
Conduct a survey
Oftentimes, you don’t need new equipment or expensive fixes to improve IAQ—you just need more information. Ask an industrial hygienist to conduct an IAQ investigation of your building to identify any obvious causes (like mold) that could be causing Building-Related Illness among occupants.
Unfortunately, not all IAQ issues can be identified so easily. In this case, occupant symptoms are classified as “Sick Building Syndrome” because a cause cannot be identified. In these cases, you may have to take additional action to alleviate symptoms.
With control over temperature, humidity, ventilation and cleaning your building’s Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system lays the foundation for healthy IAQ. But it can also sabotage your efforts. Just like your car, your building’s HVAC system is a complex mechanism that requires regular maintenance and cleaning to function efficiently.
You can keep your HVAC system in tip-top shape by conducting regular maintenance tests and cleaning all system parts, including ductwork, humidifiers, cooling towers, and other system features on a regular basis. Be sure that you pay special attention to condensate drip pans, evaporator coils and other areas where moisture condenses; these areas can quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria and other biohazards.
Keep eating areas clean
Pests aren’t just gross; they’re a serious IAQ problem too. And the only thing pests love more than moisture is food. Clean up crumbs and ask employees to keep snacks in the kitchen area (not in desks) to help minimize risk of these intruders.
HVAC is not the only building system that affects IAQ. A sick building can easily undo the work of a healthy HVAC system if it is not regularly maintained and repaired. Every building has unique needs, but there are some general guidelines you can follow to minimize IAQ issues:
- Ensure draining systems are functioning properly.
- Repair damage to roofs and exteriors promptly.
- Seal building seams, including areas around windows and doors.
- Respond to moisture events swiftly, and replace moldy materials if necessary.
- Preserve furniture and maintain building finishes like floors, cabinets and wood products.
Don’t just clean—disinfect
We often clean, but we seldom disinfect. Furthermore, we forget to clean surfaces like desks, conference tables, chairs and computers—items what we touch and use every day.
There are a few steps you can take to ensure your office stays as healthy as possible. Ask your maintenance staff to disinfect hard surfaces, deep-clean soft materials and use HEPA-filtered vacuums on a regular basis. Also consider using natural, non-toxic cleaners that won’t add VOCs to indoor air.
Have a plan
Occupants of sick buildings are much more likely to complain about IAQ issues and report SBS or BRI symptoms. Usually the first step in resolving these concerns is to conduct a building investigation to see if the source of the complaint can be found. Unfortunately, a specific cause (like mold or pests) is sometimes impossible to identify.
This is when psychology steps in. It’s important to remember that everyone experiences IAQ differently. Some individuals are more sensitive to IAQ issues and are likely to experience and report symptoms. It is important that building management have a proactive plan in place for addressing these concerns.
Oftentimes, the biggest issues arise when management chooses to ignore IAQ complaints or “blame the victim,” so to speak. In most cases, this only leads to more problems. If complaints are not taken seriously, the employee will likely start to skip work (because they believe there’s still a hazard) and share their concerns with coworkers. This negative belief can easily take hold among employees and lead to more serious issues like Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI). MPI can be defined as “The collective occurrence of a set of physical symptoms and related beliefs among two or more individuals in the absence of any identifiable pathogen”. The best way to keep IAQ concerns under control is to take occupant concerns seriously and clearly communicate the steps you are taking to resolve the issue.
We hope these tips will lead to healthier IAQ and happier occupants in your building. If you have questions or concerns about your building, or need an IAQ survey conducted, please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.