Thoughtful office ergonomics are paramount for ensuring the health, safety, and productivity of your employees—something all EHS leaders are dedicated to. However, “invisible” indoor environmental quality (IEQ) factors such as air quality can be easily overlooked. Holistically, IEQ includes not just indoor air quality (IAQ), but also access to daylight and views, pleasant acoustic conditions, and occupant control over lighting and thermal comfort.
Industrial hygienists face common complaints around IEQ from employees across a wide range of industries – you may be familiar with many of them, and how those concerns can impact worker morale. To borrow from an old saying, there’s no time like the present to take action on improving and better managing indoor air quality. Taking action can not only keep your employees happy and healthy—but also bolster your overall EHS program and business’s bottom line. And we aim to help you do just that.
We’ve created an office indoor air quality checklist, which includes strategic and tactical advice, to help you improve and manage indoor air quality. Read on to learn how you can improve indoor air quality management at your organization and breathe easier, sooner.
Identify and Define Indoor Air Quality Standards
Of course, before you can make improvements, you need to understand the current situation. So, developing a baseline of your office’s current indoor air quality is Step 1, and can be done in collaboration with upper management, as well as the rest of the team.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there are a few elements that comprise acceptable indoor air quality, including a comfortable temperature and level of humidity, adequate supply of fresh outdoor air and air flow, and control of pollutants from inside and outside of the building. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) provides guidance and technical standards for obtaining and maintaining optimal IAQ for a variety of workspaces, including offices. However, managing complex heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for optimal performance and comfort can be a complicated endeavor.
With this in mind, take steps to uncover the qualitative and quantitative lay of the land. Some things you’ll want to consider include:
- What is a comfortable temperature for your employees? (e.g. what’s recommended by ASHRAE for your particular setting, and do your employees feel comfortable when HVAC systems are set to ASHRAE-recommended settings?)
- What does a healthy level of humidity look like in this environment?
- Do employees have access to HVAC controls and can access be controlled or monitored?
- Are there additional opportunities to introduce fresh air? If employees are permitted to open windows, how does that impact HVAC functionality?
- Is your HVAC system designed for both your headcount and your operations? Is system maintenance performed by a qualified employee or vendor?
- How often does the office need to be cleaned to remove dust or accumulated allergens? Does the office have a significant amount of carpeting, upholstered surfaces and furnishings, or other locations where dust and allergens can hide?
- Have the employees reported any concerns around mysterious or lingering odors, stagnant air, or allergy-related symptoms they believe to be related to their time in the office?
- Has there been any recent construction either in your office or in adjacent spaces, which could impact your employees?
If you don’t have the internal resources to conduct some discovery here, partnering with an experienced EHS consultant for an indoor air quality assessment can help answer these questions and more.
Develop an HVAC Maintenance Strategy
Your heating and cooling system is a major player in air quality, responsible for keeping that air the right temperature and reducing humidity in warmer locales. In addition, add-ons such as air-purifiers or humidifiers can help control humidity and reduce levels of contaminants such as mold, dust, and allergens in the air.
Assessing the current state and capabilities of your HVAC system should be part of your IAQ assessment, but you’ll also need a strategy to maintain the equipment and ensure it’s able to do its job.
Here are a few elements to include when developing your HVAC maintenance strategy:
- Schedule regular duct cleanings and inspections. Construction dust, dirt, mold spores, and more pollutants and particles can settle in your duct systems and make their way into the air. In addition, leaks can occur that impact air flow, as well as heating and cooling capabilities and moisture, can accumulate in duct lining materials and eventually become a mold source. Regular cleaning and inspections ensure ducts are in tip-top shape.
- Ensure regular replacement of air filters. Unsurprisingly, dirt and debris collect on your air filter when your system is engaged, especially in high-usage times like peak summer or winter months. Regularly replacing filters helps ensure your HVAC can perform its job. At the very least, air filters should be checked once a month to ensure ultimate performance. Be sure that inspections include fresh air intake areas to ensure no entrainment of nearby exhaust or other pollutant sources.
- Schedule seasonal inspections to ensure your HVAC system is running at its best. Regular HVAC inspections can often uncover maintenance needs before a bigger fix is needed. Inspections and a regular maintenance schedule help to make sure your system is always running at its best; this minimizes the potential for poor indoor air quality.
- Ensure air vents are open and unblocked. Vents can be easily closed by an employee or blocked by furniture or personal belongings. Doing regular walk-throughs or delegating surveillance to an engaged group of employees to ensure vents are open and unblocked will improve air quality and circulation.
Document and Communicate How Employees Can Play a Role
Having the right equipment and systems in place is paramount for improving and managing IAQ. However, employees can and should play a role in it all, too. After all, for any EHS initiative to be successful, it needs to be embraced culturally within the organization.
Here are a few simple ways your employees can help maintain and improve office air quality:
- Clean spills immediately. When coffee, food, ink, or other substances spill onto counters, desktops, and floors, have a process in place for cleaning spills quickly. Consider utilizing low-odor cleaning agents to minimize nuisance or lingering chemical odors,
- Store and re-heat food properly. Wrapping food up in a paper towel or piece of aluminum foil doesn’t cut it. When sharing a fridge with others, ask that employees store their food in air-tight containers to prevent unwanted smells from seeping out.
- Abide by office and building smoking policies. If workers smoke, make sure you communicate the company and building’s policies on where they can and can’t smoke. In most states, it’s against the law to smoke within 20 feet of a public building. If fresh air intakes are nearby a current approved smoking area, consider relocating the area to a different spot.
- Dispose of garbage properly and promptly. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. We’re all familiar with the putrid smell of garbage that’s been sitting for too long. Consider creating a trash rotation schedule that encourages employees to do their part each day to remove trash before the smell gets out of hand.
- Encourage employees to bring in and care for indoor plants. Plants help brighten the environment by providing employees a breath of fresh air—literally. Plants are natural air purifiers. Plus, studies show that employees who care for plants at work experience lower levels of stress and achieve higher levels of productivity. Talk about a win-win.
The bottom line? Get your employees involved. By encouraging them to reduce workplace odors and clean up around the office, indoor air quality can be maintained while simultaneously improving employee satisfaction.
Give Your Office a Breath of Fresh Air
Office indoor air quality has a significant impact on the health, safety, and overall well-being of your employees. So, help them breathe easy by improving your office IAQ.
Get started by identifying and defining your air quality standards through an IAQ assessment. Then develop an HVAC maintenance strategy and make it a point to encourage employees to get involved.
What other ergonomic factors should EHS leaders be thinking about? Find out here.
Health and Safety
EHS and Compliance