Indoor air quality (IAQ) has been a long overlooked issue in comparison to outdoor air pollution. Just because indoor air pollution can be harder to detect, however, doesn’t mean it’s harmless: the concentrations of some pollutants can be between 2 to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. Aside from the obvious health implications, there are cognitive ones as well. Here’s why businesses should care about the quality of air at the workplace.
We have updated this article on 27/04/2021 with new information on the topic.
The impact of poor air quality in the workplace
Apart from damaging respiratory and circulatory systems, air pollution has been found to have negative cognitive effects on individuals, from reduced memory, impaired concentration, and lower decision-making capabilities to decreased language and mathematical abilities. A study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Centre for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Syracuse University found that individuals who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of air pollutants perform cognitively better than those who work in environments with average levels of indoor air pollution. The pollutants they first focused on were volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are typically found in higher concentrations indoors. These compounds are emitted from interior products and building materials such as furniture, plastics, wallpapers, cleaning materials, carpeting, copy machines, synthetic fragrances, and thirdhand tobacco smoke.
For the study, participants working in three different office conditions were compared:
- Normal (conventional work environment with high VOC concentrations)
- Green (work environment with low VOC concentrations)
- Green+ (work environment with enhanced ventilation and low VOC concentrations)
Researchers found that cognitive performance scores for those in green+ environments were 2x higher and those in green environments were 61% higher than those in normal environments. Across nine cognitive function domains, the largest improvements were found in the areas of:
- Crisis Response: the ability to plan and strategize under emergency conditions (131% higher in green+, 97% higher in green)
- Strategy: the ability to use solutions through information and planning (288% higher in green+, 183% in green)
- Information Usage: the capacity to use provided and gathered information to attain goals (299% higher in green+ 172% higher in green)
Researchers also examined the effect of carbon dioxide (CO2) on individuals. While not considered a direct indoor pollutant, as it is an essential gas that naturally occurs in the atmosphere, its concentrations tend to be higher in indoor spaces due to lack of ventilation and thus contributes to cognitive performance. As a result, the study found that out of the nine cognitive functions tested, the scores for seven of them decreased as CO2 levels increased to levels commonly observed indoors. These were:
- Basic Activity Level: the ability to make decisions at all times
- Applied Activity Level: the capacity to make decisions towards overall goals
- Task Orientation: the capacity to make specific decisions towards task completion
- Crisis Response: the ability to plan and strategize under emergency conditions
- Information Usage: the capacity to use provided and gathered information to attain goals
- Breadth of Approach: the capacity to use a variety of options and opportunities to make decisions and attain goals
- Strategy: the ability to use solutions through information and planning
Why do I have headaches at work? The sick building syndrome
Aside from impacting productivity, poor indoor air quality has been linked to an illness called “sick building syndrome”. While the specific causes are unknown, it is believed that poor ventilation and chemical contaminants such as volatile organic compounds are to blame. Exposure to these chemicals result in flu-like symptoms, such as headaches, dry cough, fever, chills, chest tightness, dry or itchy skin, dizziness, nausea, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and sensitivity to odours. The symptoms usually subside once the individual leaves the building.
How to deal with poor air quality in the workplace
There are various ways you can take action to improve the quality of air in your business environment.
- For larger corporations: ask your facility manager to look into the air quality of your office
- For smaller companies: order an air quality test kit from Breeze Technologies, complete with a sensor and scientific support for the collected data
- For employees: express your concerns about workplace air quality to your wellbeing manager
Make air quality transparent
At Breeze Technologies, we offer high-end, lower-cost sensors which measure for all major pollutants, including VOCs. The information can be presented real-time in our web-based monitoring app, which is available on any web-enabled device, for instance smart screens and tablets. This allows for transparency and open communication amongst your colleagues and employees on the health efforts of your office.
Start managing your office’s air quality
Our Breeze Environmental Intelligence Cloud allows you to manage and optimize the air quality of your work environment by analyzing and presenting real time air quality data. Using dashboards, visualizations, and threshold analyses, we help you understand the current state of affairs as well as long-term trends so that you can make better, informed decisions for the health and productivity of your colleagues and employees. Should air quality interventions be necessary, we also provide you with the most efficient and effective solutions. All for a healthier, more successful business.