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Indoor air quality is an important health and safety concern for workplaces.
Common issues associated with IAQ include:
When indoor air is not adequate, there may be issues such as:
Examples of common indoor air contaminants and their main sources include:
IAQ issues do not affect everyone in the same way. When it is an issue, it is common for people to report one or more of the following symptoms:
People generally notice their symptoms after several hours at work and feel better after they have left the building or when they have been away from the building for a weekend or a vacation.
Many of these symptoms may also be caused by other health conditions including common colds or the flu, and are not necessarily due to poor IAQ. This fact can make identifying and resolving IAQ issues more difficult.
As with any other occupational illness, not all people are affected with the same symptoms or to the same extent. Some people may be more sensitive than others or have pre-existing health conditions. Some people may be exposed to more contaminants in the building than others and they may experience symptoms earlier than other people, or experience more severe symptoms.
As air quality deteriorates or the length of exposure increases, more people tend to be affected and the symptoms tend to be more serious.
Occupants of buildings with poor IAQ report a wide range of health issues which are often called Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), Tight Building Syndrome (TBS), or Building-Related Illness (BRI).
The term sick building syndrome (SBS) is used to describe cases in which building occupants experience adverse health effects that are apparently linked to the time they spend in the building.
Building-Related Illness (BRI) refers to less frequent (but often more serious) cases of people becoming ill after being in a specific building at a certain time. In these cases, there is usually a similar set of clinical symptoms experienced by the people and a clear cause can often be found upon investigation. Legionnaires Disease is an example of BRI caused by bacteria which can contaminate a building's air conditioning system.
A certain percentage of workers may react to chemicals in indoor air, each of which may occur at very low concentrations. Such reactions are often known as environmental sensitivities or multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS).
Some specific diseases have also been linked to or made worse by specific air contaminants or indoor environments, such as asthma being associated with damp indoor environments. In addition, some exposures such as asbestos and radon may not cause immediate symptoms but can lead to cancer after many years of exposure.
No. Feelings of discomfort and illness may be related to any number of issues in the total indoor environment. Other common causes may include noise levels, thermal comfort (temperature, humidity, and air movement), lighting, ergonomics, and psychological aspects of work (e.g., stress, workload, etc.). It is important that all possible causes be investigated when assessing complaints.
Other OSH Answers documents on these topics include:
It seems possible. Some people may not be sensitive to IAQ issues in the early years of exposure but can become sensitized as exposure continues over time.
Many Canadian jurisdictions do not have specific legislation that deals with indoor air quality issues in non-industrial workplaces. In the absence of such legislation, the "general duty clause" applies. This clause, common to all Canadian occupational health and safety legislation, states that an employer must provide a safe and healthy workplace. Thus, making sure the air is of good quality is the employer's duty.
Several organizations* have published recommended guidelines for indoor air quality. For example, the Government of Canada has prepared a number of publications on air quality. Note that indoor air reference limits (IARLs) have been published by Health Canada, and other organizations. Other guidelines recommend that contaminants be kept at or below one tenth of their listed OEL.
In addition, IAQ is stated or implied in most building codes as design and operation criteria. Building codes and health and safety legislation in Canada generally refer to a version of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers* (ASHRAE) Standard 62.1 Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality (or previous versions), or other acceptable standards.
Please see the OSH Answers Indoor Air Quality Legislation for more details.
*We have mentioned these organizations as a means of providing a potentially useful referral. You should contact these organizations directly for more information.
The concentration limits for contaminants that are specified in the health and safety legislation that are referred to as occupational exposure limits (OEL), threshold limit values (TLVs ®), or permissible exposure limits (PEL):
These limits are not appropriate for:
Therefore, it is not recommended that "regular" occupational exposure limits (OELs) such as TLVs®, and PELs be used to determine if the general indoor air quality meets a certain standard. OELs use dose-response data which show the health effects of repeated exposure to one specific chemical. Similar data is not available for long-term, low-level exposures to a combination of contaminants as is the case for many IAQ situations.
If you think that you may be ill from IAQ issues, it is important to keep track of when you get your symptoms (aches, pains, headaches, etc.) and when they go away. This record will help your safety officer or health professional determine what the issue is related to. You may also wish to discuss your symptoms with your health professional to rule out any other medical conditions.
As with any other occupational health and safety concern, you can discuss your concerns with the health and safety representative, the health and safety committee, your supervisor, safety co-ordinator, industrial hygienist, or any other member of your company that is responsible for health and safety.
Your local government jurisdiction may also be able to provide information and advicse on workplace health and safety.
When there is an issue with IAQ, people may experience various health conditions that are listed above. Since many of the symptoms are very similar to what we feel like when coming down with a cold or the flu (influenza), it is often difficult to say for sure if indoor air is the cause of the symptoms.
However, it would be prudent to investigate IAQ if people develop these symptoms within a few hours of starting the workday and feel better after leaving the building, or after a weekend or vacation. In addition, if many people report similar symptoms, or if all of the people reporting symptoms work in the same area of a building, air quality should be suspected.
Many people may play a role in helping to resolve an IAQ issueproblem including the building owner, employer, property manager, and occupants. Who conducts your investigation will depend on your workplace, but in general, you should have one person who is the leader, and perhaps a small team, including a representative from the workplace site health and safety committee, or the union, if appropriate. The expertise of many other people such as health and safety or building maintenance personnel, and the experience of everyone in the workplace will all be important in finding the root cause of your IAQ issue.
Unfortunately finding the source or cause can often be difficult. The steps taken may vary from situation to situation but will include:
The following is a sample inspection checklist. Adapt or modify this checklist to best match your needs.
Examining the pattern of complaints may help indicate what element should be examined further.
Examining the pattern of complaints may help indicate what element should be examined further.
Pattern of Complaint
Possible Source or Cause
Widespread – no pattern
Localized – reports are from 1 room or a single HVAC zone
Symptoms begin at the start of the work shift
Symptoms get worse over a period of time (the day or shift)
Adapted from: Alberta Government (2009). Indoor air quality tool kit.
The following is a sample of a questionnaire that could be used to help identify if an office or building has an indoor air quality problem.
SAMPLE HEALTH SURVEY (Adapted from: Indoor Air Quality Health and Safety Guide, prepared by CCOHS)
The Canadian Committee on Indoor Air Quality in Buildings recommends the following six strategies for controlling the quality of indoor air:
Source Management is the action of identifying, avoiding, isolating, or removing a source of air contamination. It is one of the most important strategies because it addresses root causes of IAQ issues. For example, policies should be implemented for the selection of carpets, furniture, and equipment that have low emission ratings of contaminants.
Local Exhaust involves the removal of point sources of pollutants before they can disperse into the indoor air by expelling contaminated air directly outside. Sites where local exhaust is used include restrooms and food preparation areas. Other locations where pollutants originate at specific points and can be easily exhausted include storage rooms and photocopying rooms.
Ventilation introduces outdoor air into a building to displace or dilute contaminants in the indoor air. Generally, local building codes specify the quantity (and sometimes quality) of outdoor air that must be continuously supplied to an occupied area. For activities such as painting, or in the event of chemical spills, a temporary increase in ventilation can help to dilute the concentration of noxious fumes in the air. In such cases, reducing or eliminating recirculated air is advisable. Ventilation should not be considered as a substitute for proper work practices and other measures that eliminate or control the original source of the pollutants. Ventilation is most efficient and effective when applied to a well-designed and managed facility.
Exposure Control includes adjusting the time and location of building occupancy to minimize expo-sure to intentionally released air contaminants. For example, the best time for stripping and waxing floors may be on weekends. This schedule would allow the floor products to off-gas over the weekend, reducing the level of odours or contaminants in the air when the building is occupied. This strategy may require adjusting ventilation rates which are often reduced during weekends and other unoccupied periods.
Air Cleaning is the capture of particles from the air. Various types and levels of particle filtration are normally included in ventilation systems. Gaseous contaminants can also be removed, but in most cases these types of systems are complex and expensive and should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Education of the building occupants about IAQ is critical. People must be provided with information about the sources and effects of contaminants (including those under their control), and about the proper operation of the ventilation system. With this knowledge, they will better understand their indoor environment and can take steps to reduce their personal exposure and improve the overall IAQ.
If the issue persists even after you have identified and corrected some issues, you may want to seek professional assistance. You may also require help if the issue requires immediate attention and your resources are limited, or if your investigation does not reveal possible causes.
There are no legal requirements for a person to be designated as an indoor air quality consultant. It is the client's responsibility to find a competent consultant who is qualified by education, knowledge, and experience.
When hiring consultants, assess their professional background including education, professional credentials, the reputation of their firm, and, most important, demonstrated success in resolving similar situations. Ask for references.
See the OSH Answers Fact Sheet on Selecting and Hiring an OH&S Consultant for more information.