Thu | Feb 27, 2020

Growth & Jobs | Poor air quality affects staff comfort and productivity

Published:Tuesday | January 21, 2020 | 6:18 AM

Sophia Lindsay* is an employee in a large organisation, who for more than a year, experienced repeated sinusitis issues, constant headaches and nausea. She also observed that her colleagues often suffered from nasal congestion. When black phlegm started to secrete in her mouth daily, she was convinced that something was wrong with her work environment.

“I never got black mucus while I’m at home or overseas, therefore, I knew that the problem was at work,” she related.

During the period, she visited several general practitioners, pulmonary and ENT specialists, and had to take sick leave from time to time. Although she no longer needs to take medication for sinusitis, she believes that the exposure to poor air quality has had a long-term effect on her health.

“Now, I get sick once I’m exposed to similar conditions,” she disclosed.

Through the intervention of the occupational safety and health team in her organisation, two overhead vents, which needed cleaning, were identified as the source for the poor air quality. Furthermore, employees were frequently exposed to dust as the building is located on a busy motoring thoroughfare. Following remedial actions, Sophia and her colleagues are now working in a more comfortable environment.

Janice Green, International Commission on Occupational Health national secretary for Jamaica and the occupational health and safety officer at The Jamaica National Group, pointed out that health and safety legislation in developed countries makes provisions for air quality control inside workspaces.

“Employers have a duty not to expose employees to occupational hazards in the workplace,” she stressed.

Green acknowledged that good working conditions, such as having excellent indoor air quality, contributes to productivity and staff engagement in the workplace.

“When employees are comfortable in their work environment, they are likely to be more productive in comparison to employees who work in conditions that are either too cold, or hot, humid and overcrowded, and they are not provided with suitable protective gears by the employer. Furthermore, when the indoor air quality in the workspace is at an acceptable standard, employees are less likely to experience fatigue, discomfort and disengagement during the workday,” Green outlined.

“Employees are also more likely to perceive their employer’s effort to put safer systems of work in place as treating them with respect and valuing their contributions,” she added.

Green disclosed that call centre workers are more likely than other groups of workers to be affected by poor indoor air quality as call centres are generally small and overcrowded.

“Call centre workers are particularly at risk for oxygen deficiency, thermal discomfort, unnatural ventilation, and artificial lighting. It is, therefore, imperative that business operators in developed countries, who outsource their call centre functions to developing countries, evaluate and select contractors who have at least the minimum provisions for air-quality control inside the workplace,” she suggested.

Scientists, engineers, planners and environmental management consultants Conrad Douglas & Associates Limited explained that contributors to indoor air-quality issues include: internal and external sources of air pollutants, the quality of the outdoor ambient air, the design, operation, and maintenance of air-conditioning systems; as well as the overall design, use, and density of occupancy levels of enclosed spaces.

The consultants pointed out that employees can determine if they have an internal air-quality issue at work once they observe a persistent change, especially in their upper respiratory system or skin, that they are not accustomed to. Additionally, a problem is likely to exist if they consistently observe certain symptoms only while they are in specific enclosed spaces and experience relief when they go outside into the open air.

“Employers can ensure good indoor air quality by using and occupying enclosed spaces as intended by design, conducting scheduled maintenance of air conditioning systems, carrying out the scheduled cleaning of surfaces and storage spaces, and periodically carrying out strategic indoor air-quality assessments,” they said.

The consultants further emphasised that employers should take note of the types of equipment and materials they use in carrying out their jobs andfollow established practices such as the material safety data sheets of hazardous and toxic substances. These substances should always be stored and handled as recommended.

The World Health Organization indicates that, “risks of indoor air pollutants can be lowered by adequate natural ventilation and by the use of healthier building materials, including the replacement or phasing out of hazardous building substances wherever possible.”