Is your building making you sick?
That's probably not a question you'll hear every day, but it's something that has become a frequent employee complaint in recent years. I'm referring to sick building syndrome or SBS.
SBS is a term used to describe situations where occupants of "sick" buildings experience serious health symptoms associated with time spent in that building, yet no specific illness or cause of their symptoms can be identified.
Symptoms and Causes
Frequently, SBS problems are caused by a building being maintained or operated incorrectly or below reasonable standards. Often, indoor air problems are a result of poor building design or occupant activities such as the presence of harsh chemicals, cleaners, disinfectants, or cigarette smoke.
The symptoms associated with SBS are varied and can include: headaches, eye/nose/throat irritations, a dry cough, dry or itchy skin, dizziness, nausea, and many other symptoms. Many employees who complain of these symptoms feel much better when they leave the building.
The most common causes of SBS are:
- Chemicals from outdoor sources such as car exhaust, plumbing vents and building exhaust via poorly located air vents
- Chemical contaminants from indoor sources such as adhesives, upholstery, carpeting, copy machines, cleaning solutions, and pesticides. These potential contaminants may give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause serious and chronic health problems. Some of these chemicals can also cause cancer.
- Biological contaminates such as pollen, bacteria, viruses and molds. These contaminants can breed in stagnant water that has accumulated in humidifiers, ducts, insulation, carpet, or any place where water can accumulate. Biological contaminants can cause chills, coughs, tightness in the chest and allergic reactions.
Old Buildings a Culprit
A common scenario (especially in New England) is this: companies have taken over old mill buildings that were built in the 1800's. The infrastructure of these old, refurbished mills are often not up to existing regulations and health standards. The poor air quality in some of these mills is so toxic, that it's a perfect breeding ground for germs and bacteria to flourish.
What You Can Do
The expenses associated with SBS are huge and they can snowball: worker's compensation claims, employees using up their sick time, and workers requiring medical leaves of absence, not to mention a decrease in employee productivity and an increase in insurance costs.
However, there are solutions to solving the SBS problem, and they include taking the following steps:
- Increase ventilation. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems should be built to meet ventilation standards and building codes.
- Remove substances that are causing the indoor pollution.
- Routinely clean and maintain heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems to keep indoor pollutants to a minimum.
- Keep good communication between occupants and building facilities. Should a problem come up, it can be quickly corrected.
NOTE: Some of the above information was provided by the Environmental Health Center, a Division of the National Safety Council.