Indoor Air Quality is an increasingly important issue in the work environment. The study of indoor air quality and pollutant levels within office environments is a complex problem. The complexity of studying and measuring the quality of office environments arises from various factors including:
- Building floor plans are frequently changing to accommodate increasingly more employees and reorganization.
- Office buildings frequently undergo building renovations such as installation of new carpet, modular office partitions and free-standing offices, and painting.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has established a general guideline of 20 cubic feet of outside air per minute/per person for an office environment. This is a sufficient amount of air to dilute building contaminants and maintain a healthy environment. Indoor air quality complaints increase significantly in offices that are not supplied sufficient outside air.
Many of the apparent health symptoms are vague and common to both the office and home environment. Guidelines or standards for permissible personal exposure limits to pollutants within office buildings are very limited.
Many times odors are associated with chemical contaminants from inside or outside the office space, or from the building fabric. This is particularly noticeable following building renovation or installation of new carpeting. Out-gassing from such things as paints, adhesives, sealants, office furniture, carpeting, and vinyl wall coverings is the source of a variety of irritant compounds. In most cases, these chemical contaminants can be measured at levels above ambient (normal background) but far below any existing occupational evaluation criteria.
Various building studies indicate that the most likely sources of this problem are – poor ventilation, poor thermal conditions, too high or low humidity, emissions from office machines, copiers and other building contaminants and poor ergonomic layout of workstations.
Air enters office buildings or spaces through both mechanical ventilation systems as well as naturally through leaks around windows, doors, etc. Newer, larger buildings which are highly energy efficient due to sealed windows and heavy insulation primarily depend on mechanical ventilation. Older, small, and low occupancy office buildings can be adequately ventilated through natural sources which include air leakage through opened windows and doors, as well as through cracks in the windows and walls, and other openings.
In a modern office building, the heating ventilation and air conditioning system is designed to keep occupants comfortable and healthy by controlling the amount of outside air that is added to the building atmosphere, filtering both incoming and recirculated air to remove particulates and controlling the temperature. The HVAC system includes all heating, cooling, and ventilation equipment serving a building: furnaces or boilers, chillers, cooling towers, air handling units, exhaust fans, ductwork, filters, steam (or heating water) piping. A ventilation system consists of a blower to move the air, ductwork to deliver air to the room, and vents to distribute the air. A good ventilation design will distribute supply air uniformly to each area and especially areas with office machines. An effectively designed area will not have the supply and exhaust vent too close together because fresh air may be removed before it is adequately distributed throughout the area. Exhaust fans are often located a significant distance away from supply vents. A simple way to determine if the ventilation system is running a vent as a supply or an exhaust is by holding a tissue near the vent.] If the tissue moves, the air is being circulated and the direction the tissue is blown will determine the type of vent.
A ventilation system should provide for a comfortable environment with respect to humidity and temperature. The overall goal of climate control is to provide an environment that is not too cold, hot, dry or humid, and that is free from drafts and odors. Humidity refers to the amount of moisture in the air and extremes in humidification levels can influence how comfortable you may be. When the air is too humid, it makes people feel uncomfortable (wet, clammy) and can promote mold growth. On the other hand, low humidity conditions (which typically occur in the winter months) dry out the nasal and respiratory passages. Low humidity may be associated with an increased susceptibility to upper respiratory infections. Static electricity problems (affecting hair and clothes, particularly synthetic fibers) are good indicators of an office with low relative humidity.
Excessively high or low temperatures in an office area can also lead to symptoms in building occupants and reduce productivity. High temperatures have been associated with fatigue, lassitude, irritability, headache and decrease in performance, coordination and alertness. A number of factors interact to determine whether people are comfortable with the temperature of the indoor air. The activity level, age, and physiology of each person affect the thermal comfort requirements of that individual. Extreme heat, which is unlikely to be found in an office environment, can result in heat rash, exhaustion, and fainting. Workers who may be less alert or fatigued from a high temperature environment may be more prone to accidents.
An inadequately ventilated office environment or a poorly designed ventilation system can lead to the build up of a variety of indoor air pollutants. Air pollutants can originate within the building or be drawn in from outdoors. Examples of sources that originate outside a building include:
- pollen, dust and fungal spores
- general vehicle exhaust
- odors from dumpsters
- re-entrained exhaust from the building itself or from neighboring buildings
Examples of sources that originate from within the building include:
- building components and furnishings
- maintenance or remodeling activities (painting, etc.)
- housekeeping activities
- unsanitary conditions (standing water from clogged drains or dry traps) and water damage
- emissions from office equipment or special use areas, like print shops, laboratories, or food preparation areas
The following recommendations and guidelines are useful in preventing indoor air quality problems:
* HVAC systems should receive periodic cleaning and filters should be changed on a regular basis on all ventilation systems.
* The ventilation system should introduce an adequate supply of fresh outside air into the office and capture and vent point air pollutant sources to the outside.
* Office machinery should be operated in well-ventilated areas. Most office machinery does not require local exhaust ventilation in areas that are already provided with 7-10 air changes per hour. Photocopiers should be placed away from workstations. Workers should vary work tasks to avoid using machines excessively.
* Office equipment should be cleaned/maintained according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Properly maintained equipment will not generate unhealthy levels of pollutants.
* Special attention should be given to operations that may generate air contaminants (such as painting, pesticide spraying, and heavy cleaning). Provisions for adequate ventilation must be made during these operations or other procedures, such as performing work off-hours or removing employees from the immediate area, utilized.