Sick building syndrome plays a more significant role in poor health and absenteeism than many realise, according to an expert in the area, who said HR should take a number of steps to reduce its incidence and improve the health and wellbeing of employees.
“There is evidence globally which demonstrates there is a very strong link between poor indoor air quality, particularly caused by moulds, and the overall health of a building’s occupants,” said Dee Carter, associate professor and head of microbiology for The University of Sydney.
There are a range of factors behind “sick building syndrome”, which include moulds and volatiles given off by furniture, carpets and other building materials, however, Carter said the latter tends to reduce over time.
“Mould just gets worse over time if you don’t get rid of it as well as the cause of the mould.
“It plays a big part in sick building syndrome, and it has profound implications for absenteeism in organisations,” she said.
“When people start to get sensitised and they find that when they go into work they feel terrible, then they are unlikely to work very well.
“They can also be away from work for extended periods if they really have a bad episode of headaches and nausea and feeling extremely unwell – so that has very big implications for HR professionals.
“This is particularly the case in environments which are humid and damp, and cities like Sydney are quite conducive to mouldy growth.”
“Sick building syndrome” was first coined by the World Health Organisation in 1983 and described symptoms such as headache, lethargy, eye, nose and throat irritation, breathing problems, and skin irritation experienced by office workers in poorly ventilated buildings.
“It plays a big part in sick building syndrome, and it has profound implications for absenteeism in organisations”
Atze Boerstra, MD of consulting engineering firm BBA Binnenmilieu and co-author of the Indoor climate and productivity in offices, has found that doubling the outdoor air supply rate can reduce illness and the occurrence of the sick building syndrome roughly by 10 per cent and increase office work output by roughly 1.5 per cent.
Furthermore, every 10 per cent reduction in the percentage of workers dissatisfied with air quality can increase the performance of office work output by roughly 1 per cent.
In the US, employees who become sick from a mouldy environment are even suing employers due to their exposure to mould.
Joe Piccolo, an expert in indoor air quality and GM at LU-VE Group Australia, which specialises in making refrigeration and air conditioning products, said most organisations would not be aware of the importance and impact of sick building syndrome on the workforce and the impact it has around unrecognised illness.
“There is an overall failure of management to invest in maintaining and cleaning every aspect of buildings – then the hidden cost becomes lost productivity and lack of health for the building’s occupants,” he said.
He compared this to the “cost of quality” of a production run, and said that if a production manager chooses not to spend a little extra in quality monitoring, the consequence cost could be the recovery, disposal, remediation and replacement of the faulty good – often adding up to five times to actual cost of the original item.
Poor indoor air quality comes down to a range of factors, according to Piccolo, who said inadequate ventilation, chemical and biological contaminants in the indoor working environment are often to blame.
“Damp and dark conditions are the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria, moulds and fungi which we would be breathing in, resulting in respiratory infections as irritants, released from mould into the airspace – which are then inhaled,” he said.
“There are several studies, which base themselves purely on estimates, that put the saving at between $18 billion to $55 billion if indoor air quality is exercised”
“Unfortunately when it comes to indoor air quality, we neglect it. Why? Because we don’t see it,” said Piccolo.
“Something we don’t see does not register and this is almost always neglected.
“It is the responsibility of building owners, facility managers, employers and unions to provide a clean indoor environment for all office workers and visitors.”
Piccolo said it is important to keep air conditioning units serviced and cleaned regularly, or using a product such as SAN-AIR to keep the germs and mould at bay.
Piccolo has developed a simple “do it yourself” microbe and surface kit which tests for bacteria, E.coli and total Coliform, and indoor air quality can then be improved and maintained using SAN-AIR sanitiser products.
“These products are inexpensive and have proven reliability and helped us by addressing health and safety issues with respect to employees,” he said.
“Productivity gains are evident because staff have not taken time off.
“In addition, our results show we are meeting the indoor air quality microbial count guidelines as per AS3666.2 HB32.”
Daniel Massaioli, who has nearly 40 years’ experience in indoor air quality monitoring and control as well as a double major in pure and applied chemistry from the University of NSW, said there are many benefits to organising a regular thorough clean of indoor air space.
“For a business, the key advantage is productivity gains from lower absenteeism; there are several studies, which base themselves purely on estimates, that put the saving at between $18 billion to $55 billion if indoor air quality is exercised,” he said.
“In my 40 years of research into indoor air quality, I can honestly say that there is a direct correlation between air conditioners and absenteeism.
“A ducted air conditioner uses 90 per cent recycled air and 10 per cent fresh air – this means that if someone comes into work with a flu, within approximately four hours or so, it has passed through the air conditioner spreading out towards other people.
“Now, the most important aspects are moulds present in the air conditioning system, as it can weaken the immune system so that we are many times more susceptible to pathogenic germs which are capable of causing harm.”
“If someone comes in to work with a flu, within approximately four hours or so, it has passed through the air conditioner spreading out towards other people”
Where there is moisture there is mould, according to Massaioli, who said moulds in air conditioners is rampant, and almost every single air conditioner has some degree of mould blowing around a room.
“In one such example, we conducted a trial with approximately 80 to 100 employees who were all breathing from the same air conditioning ducting system,” he said.
“We took before and after measurements of the air quality and they showed a direct correlation between sick days with a high microbial count throughout the air conditioning and less sick days with lower counts.”
Massaioli’s company makes evaporative products (such as SAN-AIR) which are designed to naturally control the onset of mould in premises.
Mould releases toxins which represent a substantial danger to human health, and Massaioli said these toxins are chemical entities that have been directly linked to various forms of human cancer, pneumonia, and more commonly asthma attacks and respiratory infections.
“If a human is frequently exposed to indoor airborne mould, health problems can occur,” he said.
“The organs and systems that are at risk include: respiratory system; nervous system; immune system; haematological systems (blood); and the skin.”
Inhalation of fungal spores can also cause clinical symptoms via several mechanisms, and Massaioli said these include allergenic activity, toxicity and active infection.
“Walking into an indoor space and smelling musty air is a sure sign there is mould somewhere in the room, maybe even in the air conditioning system,” he said.
“By the time there is a musty smell there is visible dirt and or mould somewhere.”
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