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How ventilation can help avoid an unhealthy workplace

Many health issues people experience in the workplace can be avoided by making sure that heating and ventilation systems are properly installed and maintained. In this article, I outline some of the common problems and how to ensure that your systems are working in order to prevent them.

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is attributed to unhealthy or stressful factors in the working environment such as poor ventilation. Symptoms include:

  • dry or itchy skin, eyes, nose or throat;
  • headaches, lethargy, irritability, or poor concentration; and
  • a stuffy or runny nose.

Much of the time, SBS is linked to preventable flaws in heating and ventilation systems, leading to a poor indoor environment and  level of air quality.

Thermal comfort refers to a person’s psychological state of mind in relation to how hot or cold they feel. In uncomfortably hot or cold environments, people are more likely to behave unsafely because of their reduced ability to make decisions or perform tasks.

The Health and Safety Executive outlines four “environmental factors” that combine to create the thermal environment:

  • air temperature;
  • radiant temperature;
  • air velocity; and
  • humidity.

Proper heating and ventilation controls can ensure that these factors combine to create a healthy and comfortable environment.

Heat stress occurs when the body fails to properly control its internal temperature. Factors involved in the onset of heat stress involve air temperature and humidity, as well as non-environmental factors such as work rate and clothing.

Employers and employees must be aware of how to prevent heat stress. This involves properly controlling heating levels and also ensuring that there is a constant supply of fresh, clean air flowing through the office space.

Worsening of allergies was experienced by over a quarter of allergy sufferers as a result of their office environment, according to  research carried out by Allergy UK. These allergies include hay fever, asthma, and reactions to mould and pet hairs.

Also according to Allergy UK, headaches, lethargy and a dry throat can be caused by poor ventilation. Its research found that only 9% of those who experienced breathing difficulties worked in an office they considered well ventilated. In addition, of the overall sample of allergy sufferers, only 15% said their office was well ventilated.

Clearly, ventilation is a key area on which employers must focus in order to prevent the onset of allergic reactions in the workplace.

Ventilation systems should deliver air of suitable quality and in sufficient quantity to:

  • create and maintain a healthy and comfortable environment;
  • dilute and remove airborne impurities and pollutants;
  • create and maintain a comfortable temperature and humidity; and
  • prevent stagnation and draughts.

Additionally, in order to ensure optimal thermal comfort and reduce the potential of problems such as heat stress arising, it is recommended that indoor temperatures in workplaces be set at around 19°C.

Tony Ellerker is director at Blakes M&E Building Services

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