In a hotel lobby, an HVAC technician speaks with a hotel executive in front of an IAQ monitoring screen.
Trade Talk

How to prevent sick building syndrome in your facility

Indoor air quality, or IAQ, plays a significant role in overall health. For facility managers, making sure your building’s air is safe to breathe is essential. Besides minimizing health risks, when you improve indoor air quality, you can also increase the level of productivity of facility workers.

Learn about how to prevent sick building syndrome and building-related illnesses with tips to improve IAQ in your facility.

What causes sick building syndrome?

Around indoor air contaminants, OSHA says that health hazards in buildings might be due to two different problems: sick building syndrome and building-related illnesses.

Generally associated with poor air quality in the workplace, sick building syndrome is not an illness, so the exact cause cannot be confirmed.

The syndrome describes a pattern of symptoms that correlate with building occupancy. Symptoms include:

  • Coughing

  • Sneezing

  • Nausea and dizziness

  • Runny nose

  • Headache

  • Lethargy

If you suspect sick building syndrome, it’s likely that multiple building occupants experience issues that diminish when they leave the building.

What are building-related illnesses?

Unlike sick building syndrome, building-related illnesses can be clinically documented and diagnosed as a disease. One common building-related illness is Legionellosis, a respiratory disease caused by exposure to the Legionella bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, explains that the majority of people who are exposed to Legionella do not become sick. Legionella exposure is potentially life-threatening for people with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly or those with chronic illnesses. For this reason, Legionella exposure is especially hazardous in health care facilities.

Legionella grows in water systems that are improperly maintained, including:

  • Cooling towers

  • Water heaters

  • Pools and hot tubs

  • Plumbing systems

  • Decorative fountains

Storing water at a safe temperature can help prevent Legionella growth. See how tank boosters can help with safety.

What are OSHA air quality standards?

OSHA doesn’t have standards specifically on IAQ. Instead, the administration outlines ventilation standards as well as major air contaminants.

In a typical office environment, contaminants can come from machines, cleaning products, furniture and carpeting, as well as microbial growth.

Poor IAQ can make breathing difficult for smokers and for people who have preexisting medical conditions, which can include:

  • Allergies

  • Asthma

  • Emphysema

  • Lung cancer

Mold and mildew associated with poor IAQ will aggravate respiratory illness symptoms. Taking steps to prevent mold growth will help ensure the health and safety of your facility’s occupants.

Tips to improve indoor air quality in the office

You can improve your facility’s IAQ and reduce the risk of sick building syndrome and building-related illnesses by monitoring the air in the workplace and developing a regular cleaning and maintenance schedule.

Monitor air quality in the workplace

Residential or commercial IAQ monitors can help facility managers assess their building’s baseline measurements before deciding if upgrades are necessary.

Sensors are able to detect a number of factors that can cause poor IAQ in offices, including:

  • Dust

  • Carbon dioxide

  • Volatile organic compounds

  • Bacteria

  • Formaldehyde

  • Humidity

  • Particulate levels

Monitoring is the first step on the path to improving IAQ in the workplace. With accurate data, facility managers can make informed decisions about IAQ products and services to reduce indoor air contamination.

In addition to building maintenance and thorough cleaning, IAQ solutions include customized ventilation, filtration, humidity control and air purifiers.

Prevent poor air quality at work with building maintenance

Check out HVAC systems, prohibit smoking and reduce moisture in your facility to improve IAQ.

Clean and inspect HVAC systems at least once a year. Improper ventilation from poorly working HVAC systems causes 52% of cases of poor IAQ, according to OSHA. Hire a professional HVAC contractor once a year to check:

Replace air filters following the manufacturer's recommended schedule, which is usually every 30, 60 or 90 days. Standing moisture in condensate drain pans provides optimal conditions for mold growth. Check them regularly and empty them as needed.

Bonus tip: Ensure proper ventilation by keeping your facility’s equipment, such as desks, filing cabinets and copy machines, from blocking grilles or registers.

Do not allow smoking in or near the building. Tar and other chemicals from tobacco smoke will build up on the interior walls and ceiling of your facility. Even if occupants are allowed to smoke outside, the smoke can waft in through open doors and windows if the designated smoking area is too close to the building.

Make sure designated smoking areas are far enough away that smoke cannot travel into your facility.

Keep moisture to a minimum. As mentioned above, mold and mildew contribute to a building’s IAQ. Because mildew grows in damp conditions, keeping your facility’s structure as dry as possible will limit mold growth.

  • Caulk and seal around windows and entryways.

  • Inspect the roof for leaks and weak spots.

  • Replace any damp drywall, insulation and ceiling tiles.

  • Fix leaky plumbing fixtures as quickly as possible.

Bonus tip: Indoor plants are typically used to make a space more pleasant. If they are not cared for, however, they will have the opposite effect by decaying and leading to poor IAQ. Make sure that your facility’s indoor plants are tended to on a regular basis.

Improve indoor air quality with thorough facility cleaning

Floor care, dusting and regular cleaning in your facility have an impact on poor indoor air at work.

Focus on floor care. Keeping floors clean in your facility will minimize air particles. Be sure to:

  • Vacuum carpets on a daily or as-needed basis with a HEPA-filtration vacuum cleaner.

  • Dust mop hard floors daily. Wet mop and wax floors as required, depending on the type of floor. The floor cleaning products you need will also depend on the type of floor. Get floor cleaning and maintenance tips for every floor type.

Make dusting part of your cleaning program. Dust removal plays a significant role in IAQ. Make sure your facility’s maintenance crew remembers to remove dust in hard-to-reach places, such as on top of shelves and filing cabinets and behind office furniture.

Clean under and inside of appliances. Food crumbs and dirt can be swept under appliances in facility break rooms. The mystery sandwich that’s been sitting in the back of the break room fridge will create a pungent odor in a short time.

Move all facility appliances and sweep below them on a regular basis. Purge the fridge once a week and wipe down the interior with an all-purpose cleaner to keep fridge odors at bay.

Partner with Ferguson to increase IAQ

Ferguson’s IAQ experts can help you improve indoor air quality in the workplace. Explore customized IAQ solutions, including monitors, sensors, ventilation and filtration, to select the right combination for your facility.