Outdoor air can be filled with pollutants from vehicles, industrial processes and plenty of other sources, so outdoor air quality should be our biggest air quality concern, right? Wrong. If you work indoors, the air you breathe all day long in your office building, warehouse or manufacturing facility could actually be the bigger threat to your health and safety.
Indoor air can have pollutants like carbon monoxide, ozone, radon and asbestos in it. It can also contain dust, mold and other substances that irritate the lungs, sinuses and eyes, causing health effects ranging from headaches to asthma. Some air pollutants cause short-term effects, while other health problems—like cancer or lung diseases—don’t materialize for years.
To help a variety of industries improve indoor air quality, a new global alliance recently formed that includes organizations like the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA) and the Federation of European Heating and Air-Conditioning Associations (REHVA), among other groups.
The alliance, called the Indoor Environmental Quality Global Alliance (IEQ-GA), plans to spread information about indoor air quality research and help guide those seeking to improve thermal conditions and reduce indoor air pollution in indoor spaces.
“Today, and for some time, we have strongly emphasized energy conservation and protection of the environment to such an extent that the need for progress in indoor environmental quality has been obscured,” said Bill Bahnfleth, President of ASHRAE, in a press release. “A broad, coordinated effort is needed to fill gaps in research, transfer the results of science to practice, advocate for higher standards and better educate both the built environment professions and the public. I believe that formation of this Alliance is a key to meeting those objectives.”
This collaboration among industry groups draws attention to the increasing importance of indoor air quality. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.”
All this time spent inside can lead to unexpected illnesses that can make employees uncomfortable, less productive and more prone to spending time away from work.
Preventing Poor Indoor Air Quality
Workplaces can take some concrete steps to keep indoor air quality from becoming a problem. First, safety and facility managers need to understand the sources of indoor air contaminants, which can come from both indoor and outdoor sources. The EPA provides a helpful list of common sources, which includes combustion sources (such as heating appliances), cleaning supplies and building materials.
To prevent these sources from becoming problematic, one of the most important things a workplace can do is maintain the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Problems with ventilation are responsible for 52 percent of indoor air quality issues, according to an investigation done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Regularly servicing the HVAC system to ensure optimum performance will help maintain comfortable temperature and humidity levels, proper air flow and appropriate air pressure.
To help keep the air moving and comfortable, OSHA advises workplaces maintain a consistent temperature between 68 and 78 degrees, keep the building at a slightly positive pressure (so air flows out doors instead of in, which could bring in pollutants such as car exhaust) and provide extra ventilation in areas that are being cleaned with chemicals.
Workplaces should also be aware of any machinery or processes within the facility that could create air pollutants and do what they can to reduce those possible hazards. A manufacturer that works with metals, for example, could have high amounts of metal dust in the air. These dusts need to be treated with the appropriate suppression and containment systems. (For more information about dealing with dusts, particularly combustible dusts, read 19 Ways to Deal with Combustible Dust.)
Employers should also remind workers to reduce any activities—such as smoking, blocking air vents and allowing trash to accumulate—that could contribute to poor indoor air quality.
For a more detailed explanation of indoor air pollutants, their sources and methods for dealing with those pollutants, read Indoor Air Quality at Work.