Air is all around us. It’s in our homes, our favorite local hangouts, and in businesses around the community. We hardly think about the quality of our air – until there’s an issue. Allergens and hazards in the air can make any environment uncomfortable. Clean air is essential to the workplace. COVID-19 has created renewed importance on clean, breathable environments. But how do employers provide these spaces? What can they do to help employees breathe easy?
On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we welcome Rhonda Kauffman. She works as a Safety and Risk Specialist for MEM. Kauffman has over 20 years of experience in occupational safety and industrial hygiene. She provides assistance and training for employers who want to bring health and safety programs to their workplaces.
First, we’ll talk about why air quality is important in the workplace. Then, we’ll share steps for employers who want to make changes to their air quality. Finally, we’ll discuss alternatives methods you can use to improve your workplace air quality today.
Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.
Why care about the air?
Air quality isn’t a topic that comes up often in the workplace. But poor quality air can cause physical effects, like headaches, congestion, and stuff noses. Employees experiencing these symptoms don’t always connect it to the workplace. As a result, they may just put up with it. Most don’t discover others are having similar symptoms unless someone brings it up.
“Indoor air quality is not a new concern,” Kauffman explained. In the ideal situation, employees tell their managers about their symptoms. Then, managers can determine how to respond. But if employees don’t share their symptoms – or managers don’t take their concerns seriously – everyone suffers. Air quality impacts the way employees feel about coming to work. Clean air is a part of feeling safe in the workplace. Without it, employee morale and productivity can suffer.
Clean air: 3 steps to improving air quality
Most of us take clean air for granted. However, it boosts health, mood, and productivity on the job. If you want to improve your workplace air quality, then start with an assessment.
Step 1: Consult the professionals
Air quality should be tested by a competent and trusted professional. Air standards are developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). Further, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may set additional guidelines for your industry. Your chosen professional should be familiar with these regulations. They can help you assess your current situation. This includes how much fresh air you need for the amount of employees you have.
Step 2: Do regular maintenance
Most businesses have an air system in place. A heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system helps maintain indoor air temperature and quality. Just like other equipment and systems, it needs regular inspections. When was the last time your system was inspected? How long has it been since the filters were changed? Are the vents free of dust and debris?
“Make sure that these vents and the systems aren’t blocked by things that maybe people in the building decided they wanted to put up,” Kauffman added. Employees can often cover vents with furniture, like bookshelves, cabinets, or desks. This can decrease your system’s effectiveness. Make sure all vent sites are clean and clear.
Step 3: Address any complaints
Employee complaints or industry regulation typically drive air quality testing. If your business isn’t affected by either, then Kauffman recommends that you may not need it. Unneeded testing can mean consultant and laboratory fees. “If there’s no complaint, no concerns being expressed by the folks that are working there, there’s really no reason to go off and hire a consultant and have a bunch of air testing done.”
Air quality testing 101
Air quality changes from day to day. Kauffman compares air testing to a photograph. A test can show what air quality is like in the moment. However, it doesn’t show what it was like the day before. It also doesn’t show what it may be like in the future. It is possible to test your air for a variety of potential hazards. But each test is done at an additional cost. Further, they may not even cover hazards relevant for your workplace.
If you don’t have an air quality professional on your team, then you’ll need to hire one. Kauffman finds that several costs can be involved. Consultants usually charge an hourly rate. This is for the time they spend at your workplace, and the time it takes to write the report. Additionally, they may charge a per diem cost: travel, lodging, meals, etc. Any special equipment they need, lab fees, and testing costs are also a part of the bill. Tests can range anywhere from $25 to over $100 each.
Knowing what to look for
Hiring a professional is important. “You need to know what you’re testing for so that you get the right results back,” she explained. A professional will know to inspect your work environment, and connect it to potential hazards. For example, water leaks can cause mold growth, which can release spores into the air.
Before doing any testing, talk to employees. Inspect your work environment. Consider air quality testing if there are symptoms or issues. Testing for the right hazards with the right equipment will cost less than testing for any and every possibility.
Alternative solutions that improve air quality
Air quality testing is the first step to improving a workplace environment. The results provide a road map for moving forward. However, there are solutions that can improve the general air quality in your business today:
- Air filters. The right air filter can reduce allergens in the air. Check with a professional on the right filter for your system. The wrong filter can cause your HVAC system to work harder than it needs to.
- Disinfection systems. Systems are available to sterilize workplace air. They use ultraviolet (UV) light to clean small spaces. Further, there are portable options that can be moved from room to room as needed.
- Monitoring systems. An air monitoring system checks for air qualities like temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide. It sends alerts when it detects something unusual.
- Office environment. Scents and allergens can be present in work environments. Avoid air fresheners with strong scents. Limit the number of potted plants; they can release pollen into the air indoors.
- Safety precautions. Germs can spread quickly in close quarters. Encourage team members who are feeling under the weather to stay home. “Whether we’re in a pandemic or not, we want to remind our employees that if you don’t feel well, don’t go to the office,” Kauffman said. “Regardless of if it’s COVID or cold or flu season.”
Business owners are responsible for providing a safe work environment. Although it’s often overlooked, clean air is part of that. Employees – and their employers – benefit from a workplace where everyone can breathe easy.
For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, learn more about the use of masks in the workplace during COVID-19 in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode.