Guest Author: Jackie Quinlan
The World Health Organization estimates that around seven million people die each year from air pollution, and exposure to air pollutants happens both through the inhalation of indoor as well as outdoor air. Sick building syndrome (SBS) refers to building-related diseases that can be traced back to a specific cause in the environment.
This can range from the triggering of allergies to bacterial infections, or even the development of serious and sometimes fatal illnesses, such as pneumonia or interstitial lung disease. SBS is now a huge social issue as well as a major occupational hazard, and as such, the cause, management and prevention of this condition has been the subject of much ongoing research.
Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome
In the 1980s and 90s, the term “sick building” was much more widespread. However, in the present day, The National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health prefers to use the term “indoor air quality.”
A building could be labelled a “sick building” if 20% of the workforce operating within it has symptoms that relate to allergens in the environment such as headaches, watery eyes, itchy skin, nausea, fatigue, mental fogginess, tremors, swelling of the legs, or even miscarriages and cancer. The only way to ascertain if these symptoms or diseases are indeed related to the building is if symptoms improve when staff are either at home or on holiday.
Because of the wide range of non-specific symptoms pertaining to SBS, some have argued that there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the syndrome, as there could be many other personal factors that can cause these symptoms. Researchers have claimed that there are psychological factors that could also be at play, such as depression, anxiety or dissatisfaction at home, work or in personal relationships.
This has created a gray area that makes it difficult to determine in some cases whether the root cause of the symptoms is the building in question or psychological factors.
The Importance of Sanitizing a Work Space
Despite this ambiguity, there is no denying that SBS is now a major social problem and health concern. In order to assume adequate social responsibility of the problem, it is important that the health and well-being of workers be made a central consideration in building design. Because of the potential severity of the symptoms associated with a sick building, some argue that more needs to be done to safeguard workers from these hazards.
The inside of the office is a good place to start. Companies have a social responsibility to ensure the health and well-being of workers during office hours. This means that cleaning, which may seem like a minor issue, should be a priority in the day-to-day running of the workplace.
Statistics show that the average work space—including the desk, keyboard, chair and computer mouse—harbors 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat, and therefore presents a hazard to the well-being of employees if thorough cleaning is not prioritized. Businesses must ensure that offices are routinely sanitized to minimize the spread of bacteria and protect the well-being of the workforce.
Ongoing Problems with Building Design
More difficult to resolve are, of course, the problems with building design. Many older buildings may have structural and design problems that can pose a number of health risks. In the 1970s when sick building syndrome was first recognized, there was a movement among regulatory authorities and builders to make buildings as air-tight as possible to save on the fuels required for heating and air conditioning.
This had the unfortunate consequence of causing a whole host of polluting factors, such as indoor combustion, carbon monoxide build-up, and a range of inhalable toxic air pollutants, as well as airborne-allergens and pathogens such as fungi, spores, bacteria and viruses.
Making matters worse is the fact that many new buildings are made from building materials that can pose health risks, such as plywood, carpet glue, rugs and furniture that can “off-gas” toxic fumes.
Given the health hazards posed by both old and new buildings, it is widely agreed that there is still a lot more to be done when it comes to improving building design so as to support the continued health and well-being of workers. Only when this has been fully prioritized and achieved can we say that full social responsibility has been taken for this issue.