Taking Action To Make Workplace Air Healthier
In the March 2016 issue of HETI Horizons, we talked about “The Value of Healthy Indoor Air” and addressed the cost and risks of poor indoor air quality (IAQ). As a continuation, this edition discusses ways to improve the indoor environment, increase productivity, and enhance employee satisfaction about the environment in which they work.
Businesses are starting to have an appreciation for the impact and value of maintaining a healthy indoor environment. There is a growing body of evidence to support findings that air in offices may have higher levels of pollutants than outdoor air. While there is no environment – either indoor or outdoor – that is totally free of chemicals (many of which occur naturally in the environment), there are many steps that building managers and businesses can take to improve overall air quality.
Some of these steps are inexpensive, utilizing readily available tools. Others involve upgrading or designing the heating and ventilating systems for the intended building layout and use, rather than for a large open space.
The Impact of Poor Air Quality
One of the most frequently overlooked tools for a building is a well thought-out preventative maintenance program for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system equipment. An experienced third-party vendor can improve equipment operation and reliability, save money, and improve the indoor environment – through such services as:
- Frequent replacement of air filters (typically every three months).
- Use of highest efficiency filter (i.e., MERV-13) that does not degrade system performance.
- Cleaning coils and drip pans at least annually, if not more frequently. Inspecting p-traps, belts and other devices each time the filters are changed.
- Checking operation of economizers and fresh air dampers.
- Inspecting the condition of ductwork every five to ten years to see if cleaning is required.
- Making sure building exhaust systems (i.e., bathrooms) are functioning properly for odor control.
- Cleaning and sanitizing building cooling tower frequently, if applicable.
- Annually inspecting ductwork associated with food service stoves and fryers, if applicable, to ensure they are free of accumulated grease and debris.
Typically, new building HVAC ductwork is laid out in straight runs without consideration for the location of offices or partition walls. That leaves some spaces without sufficient fresh air, and others with an unbalanced supply. Working with the architect and the builder during the design and construction phases of new buildings can ensure that the floor plan is taken into account in the design of HVAC systems.
Energy Management System
Older buildings may not be equipped with energy management systems (EMS). These devices allow the building manager to evaluate utility performance, notify maintenance when there is a problem, automatically or manually open or close fresh air dampers for time of day or low or high use periods, utilize economizer modes on HVAC equipment…as well as provide many other benefits.
Retrofitting older systems with EMS with appropriate electronic controls, along with carbon dioxide or temperature sensors, can increase fresh air within a space when conditions (such as a heavily-occupied meeting room) call for more air. EMS can be managed locally or remotely, so trained personnel need not be at each site.
Building Management Plan
As buildings age, they develop leaks in roofs, windows, plumbing and many other building components – creating odors and water management issues. A proactive management plan will help identify small problems before they become larger ones. The management plan is typically building-specific, based on use and occupancy, and minimally may include:
- A monthly roof inspection and clearing of roof scuppers and downspouts to prevent ponding of water and damage to roof system.
- Inspecting and taking care of plumbing leaks promptly.
- Inspecting window systems and exterior walls for evidence of dried caulk or gaskets, spalling of brick, cracks in stucco, etc.
- If the building is located near a flood plain, keeping supplies handy to prevent water infiltration or to dry a building when it gets wet.
- Keeping floor mats at each exterior door entrance, to mitigate tracking in biogenic matter, dust, debris and food particles on shoes.
- Carpeting, especially new carpeting, looks nice, but may cause “new carpet” odors and become a magnet for dust, debris and food particles. Carpeting infrequently gets vacuumed and when it does, the wrong type of vacuum often just spreads the dirt around in the air and on the ground. Many studies have shown dirty carpeting to be a primary source of air quality issues. In many applications, hardwood flooring or some other alternative to carpeting should be considered. If not, a vacuum that has strong suction and a HEPA filter should be used on the carpeting – so dust and dirt are not simply blown around the room.
Healthy Humidity Level
The ideal humidity level in a building is 30-50% – which is often difficult to maintain during the summer and winter, especially in below-grade levels. Fungal spores (mold) and dust mites love higher humidity levels; so it is important to take actions to prevent extremes of temperatures.
- Dehumidifiers are good tools for reducing humidity levels in below-grade spaces. Air conditioning cools air but is less efficient at removing moisture than a dehumidifier.
- If a building has a humidification system, a steam or single-pass cold water system is preferred to one where water accumulates in a basin or trough. These rarely get cleaned and become breeding grounds for bacteria and fungal spores.
Making a building “smoke-free” is the easiest, simplest action to improving air quality. Tobacco smoke produces more than 4,000 compounds, many of them harmful. Indoor smoking areas, even when equipped with exhaust ventilation, do not operate efficiently, are expensive to run, and require heated or cooled air to replace the air exhausted. Outside smoking areas should be located sufficiently away from open doors, windows or fresh air intakes.
Clean Air Smells Like…Nothing
Clean air is odor-free. It should not smell musty, mildewy, sweet or fragrant. If the source of a mystery odor cannot be identified, an Industrial Hygienist should be called upon to assist. Often the cause may be something minor, such as leftover food; while at other times there may be more complex causes.
Use of “Fragrance-Free” Products
Various cleaning products and air fresheners contain fragrances, such as limonene, that impart a “fresh” scent. Many individuals are sensitive to these chemicals and may demonstrate an allergenic response. The trend is away from these types of products to more naturally smelling ones. By working with in-house or third-party cleaning services, appropriate substitutions can be found.
HETI…Helping Manage IAQ Risk
HETI offers a staff of experienced environmental and industrial hygiene professionals with proven capabilities to deal with a full range of air quality issues. We routinely provide odor investigations, IAQ assessments and HVAC evaluation at a wide range of sites and facilities.