The quality of indoor air in the workplace is important not only for workers' comfort, but also for their health. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recognizes that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can be hazardous to workers' health. Many factors affect IAQ—poor ventilation (not enough or lack of outside air), problems controlling temperature, high or low humidity, recent remodeling, and other activities in or near a building that can affect the fresh air coming into the building. Sometimes, specific contaminants—such as dust from construction or renovation, mold, cleaning supplies, pesticides, or other airborne chemicals (including small amounts of chemicals released as a gas over time)—may cause poor IAQ.
IAQ refers to the quality of air in non-industrial environments, such as offices. Since the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, indoor air quality has become an increasingly important issue for building owners, managers, and occupants. OSHA has identified the key attributes that typically lead to IAQ complaints as:
Symptoms related to poor IAQ are varied, depending on the type of contaminant. They can easily be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses. The usual clue is that people feel ill while inside the building, and the symptoms go away shortly after leaving the building.
Symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs are typical. Also, some diseases have been linked to specific air contaminants or indoor environments, such as asthma with damp indoor environments.
Whenever excessive moisture is present within the workplace, bacteria, mold, and fungi can grow and can lead to respiratory issues such as allergic reactions, asthma, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, sneezing, nasal congestion, and sinusitis. Asthma is both caused by and worsened by dampness in the building.
OSHA suggests that a proactive approach be taken to address IAQ concerns. Failure to respond expeditiously and effectively to IAQ concerns can quickly lead to more numerous or serious adverse health issues.
Typically these pollutants are present where water is found to support growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Common biological pollutants can be dust mites, animal dander, legionella, and pollen. Inadequate maintenance and housekeeping of building ventilation systems can compound the issue.
Sources of chemical pollutants (gases and vapors) come from five main categories: products used in the building, products that can get pulled into the HVAC system from outside the building, accidental spills, products used during construction activities, and byproducts of combustion such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and nitrogen dioxide.
These are described as a solid or liquid, non-biological that can be suspended in air, creating a respiratory hazard. This most often is dirt and dust drawn into the building ventilation system. Another source can be construction activities in the building resulting in suspended particles, such as drywall dust, wood dust, and silica from cutting, drilling, or sanding of concrete. Common particles and control measures are also described in Appendix A of OSHA document 3430-04.
There are many sources of air pollutants that contribute to IAQ problems. The importance of any one single source depends on several factors:
Sources of indoor air pollutants may include:
OSHA recognizes the "Three Lines of Defense" as a way of thinking about and applying specific actions to reduce or eliminate potential exposures to identified hazards. This is a commonly used and understood practice within the safety community. In this philosophy, you always apply the most effective method first, working down from there. This begins with eliminating/engineering the hazards out, then implementing administrative controls such as policies and procedures, and lastly, if the first two lines of defense are not feasible or are insufficient, incorporating the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Eliminating the source of the pollutant should always be the first option, and this starts with source management. This would include removal, substitution, and enclosure of pollutant sources. This is considered the most effective method when applied in a practical manner. For example, look for products such as paints and carpets labeled as “low VOC emitters” to help prevent IAQ issues at the source.
If the pollutant source cannot be eliminated, then engineering controls are the next step to control exposure. Examples include:
If elimination/engineering controls prove to be infeasible, administrative controls should then be considered. Administrative controls fall into three general areas:
If elimination/engineering and administrative controls prove to be infeasible or insufficient, PPE should then be used to control exposure to indoor pollutants by use of respirators, gloves, protective clothing, eyewear, and footwear where necessary.
OSHA does not have a formal IAQ standard but will enforce IAQ issues that pose a recognized hazard via the General Duty Clause Section 5(a)(1). OSHA also responds to questions about IAQ issues with letters of interpretation found in OSHA publication 3430-04 (2011) titled "Indoor Air Quality in Commercial and Institutional Buildings." This publication is a comprehensive guide provided by OSHA addressing IAQ issues.
These standards provide guidance from their originating organizations.
American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE):
Poor IAQ is a substantial problem that affects us all yet doesn't get the attention it deserves as a public health threat. It’s an issue that's been around for a while and is getting worse, especially as we construct increasingly air-tight, energy-efficient buildings. The good news is that poor IAQ is a problem that can be fixed following OSHA's three lines of defense philosophy. A variety of controls and actions can be taken to enhance interior breathing conditions and avoid the health issues generated from the presence of indoor air pollutants in our workplace.