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Could your air at work be costing you time and money?

By Emily Roberts

Maintaining the indoor air quality of the work environment may not be top of a business owner's long list of things to do. But here's why it's so important.

Modern office environment

While hazardous environments such as mining, construction and workshops are commonly associated with high risk from exposure to dust, diesel particulates and silica, the impact of poor air quality extends far beyond these sectors.

Offices, factories, buildings and even homes may be incurring a staggering cost to the nation—up to $12 billion annually—due to the toll on health and the subsequent loss of productivity. 

QED Environmental Solutions’ Joe Scholz quoted this whopping figure – as reported by CSIRO – at CCIWA’s recent WHS Live event. 

“CSIRO estimated $12 billion a year in Australia is lost due to lower productivity and the cost of ill-health due to poor air quality in office buildings,” he says. 

“If you consider all the other negative impacts of poor air quality, such as days off work, lower productivity when at work and a shorter life span, it’s easy to see how that $12b number could be so high.” 

However, other studies say the number could be even higher. 

A 2017 University of New South Wales study states the figure is more in the vicinity of $11-$24b per year due to premature deaths from air pollution. 

And the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates poor indoor and outdoor air quality is responsible for seven million premature deaths globally per year. 

“I’m not surprised by these figures as I have been interested in this area for years,” Scholz says. 

Causes of air quality problems 

There are several factors that can negatively impact air quality, including: 

  • Inadequate ventilation for the number of people occupying a building.  
  • Chemical contaminants from indoor sources – eg. volatile organic chemicals emitted from carpets or manufactured wood furnishings, pesticides, cleaning agents, unflued gas heaters or work processes producing fumes. 
  • Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources – eg. air intake near a source of vehicle exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, plumbing vents or kitchen or bathroom exhaust air. 
  • Biological contaminants – eg. mould or bacteria (which may have multiplied in damp conditions), bird droppings, dust mites, cockroach allergens, mouse droppings. 

Resolving air quality problems 

Investigating and resolving indoor air quality problems can be complex, however identifying the likely cause and controlling it should minimise health and comfort concerns and maintain productivity. 

Scholz says there is a legal requirement for a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to maintain an atmosphere that is not detrimental to health. Specific monitoring or sampling may be required to demonstrate adequate air quality where there is a perceived risk. 

“Measurement of air quality can then be done with handheld equipment or in some cases laboratory samples,” he says. 

“It is very important to ensure that testing results are traceable, which means you can determine the accuracy of the result by tracing back to the equipment used, method and expertise of the sampler.  

“NATA [National Association of Testing Authorities] accreditation is a way to demonstrate this and recommended in Australia. 

“I believe that annual assessments are generally sufficient to capture any negative trends, but if there has been an event like flooding damage, or a new indoor process or machine generating pollution, or an increase in staff complaints, then those warrant an assessment.” 

What can employers do now? 

There are a few things employers can do to immediately improve the quality of air in their environment, Scholz says. These include: 

  1. Get to know how your premises is ventilated. Is there an air conditioning (A/C) system, or is it naturally ventilated? If there is an A/C system, then is it bringing in outside air or just re-circulating it?
  2. Make sure the outside air is not polluted. Polluting activities near A/C intakes include idling vehicles, new construction works, painting, chemicals and cooling towers.
  3. Avoid generating pollutants indoors as much as possible, and if it can’t be avoided make sure this is managed by increasing outside air ventilation or segregate the activities from staff in this space.
  4. Know your occupancy capacity limitations. Typically, A/C design allows for one person per 10 square metres. Therefore, meeting rooms may need extra outside air ventilation, or extra breaks to open the doors to ventilate the room.
  5. Don’t be fooled by the magical ‘quick-fix gizmo’ or amazing technology. Do the above steps and make sure they are regularly reviewed.   

Keep up to date 

Keep a look out for updates on air quality.

QED publishes a regular factual newsletter on air quality and other facets of the indoor environment. 

WorkSafe WA also has an indoor air quality webpage. 

Additionally, updates are regularly shared in the Safe Work Australia and World Health Organization, Worksafe WA newsletters. 

Our qualified workplace health and safety experts provide cost-effective solutions to manage your WHS needs, reduce the risk to your workers and help you meet WA’s WHS laws. Email [email protected] or call (08) 9365 7746.    

Maintaining the indoor air quality of the work environment may not be top of a business owner's long list of things to do. But here's why it's so important.

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