The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) backed 137 grants with $53.4 million across 37 states to monitor air quality in 2022 due to the debilitating effects of pollutants. These studies are designed to reduce the harmful effects of breathing in seemingly fresh outdoor air. So, it should come as no surprise workers in confined spaces are at risk unless indoor air quality regulations are better enforced.

Health and Safety Statistics Related to Poor Indoor Air Quality

An indoor air quality (IAQ) study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicates that enclosed spaces with poor ventilation and above-average concentrations of particulate matter had a negative impact on employee productivity. Particulate matter typically contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are unknowingly inhaled. They are widely associated with significant health issues, and the Harvard study supports that conclusion.

The research was taken from 300 engineering, architecture, real estate, and technology office spaces, among others, across six countries. In each industry, people exposed to poor IAQ experienced sluggishness, impaired decision-making, and were deemed less productive. They also scored lower on cognitive tests than people in clean-air environments. While the harmful effects of particulate matter in these industries are concerning, there are millions of workers in less refined sectors.

The unhealthy, humid air in factories, warehouses, and emerging cannabis grow operations, places employees at a heightened risk. Implementing IAQ control strategies and requiring personal protective equipment (PPE) and disposable clothing is essential to curb the harmful effects.

What are the Effects of Poor IAQ?

The EPA notes that Americans spend upwards of 90 percent of their time indoors between work and home life. People who are particularly susceptible to air pollutants tend to be indoors even longer. The federal agency also pointed out that IAQ has decreased in recent years. It may seem counterintuitive, but energy-efficient building designs and increased use of synthetic materials have reportedly contributed to unhealthy indoor air. These rank among the prevalent health conditions attributed to poor indoor air.

Reduced Cognitive Function

The Harvard study demonstrated that people who work in spaces with poor air quality took longer to respond to standard questions. They showed diminished cognitive functions and scored lower on testing than their clean-air counterparts. The data from 300 work environments established a clear pattern that poor IAQ had a debilitating effect on health and well-being.

Stress and Distraction

The cognitive dysfunction experienced by workers triggered emotional responses as well. People who suffered from unhealthy air conditions became more stressed and agitated. They were generally easily distracted and had difficulty staying on task. Spaces that did not adequately address temperature and humidity exacerbated this issue.

Higher Rates of Headache and Fatigue

Employees immersed in confined spaces with poor air quality suffered higher rates of headaches, fatigue, and illness. A greater percentage presented with more frequent flu-like symptoms. They also called in sick more often than people in clean-air workplaces.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

The symptoms associated with sick building syndrome (SBS) include mucosal, skin conditions, headaches, fatigue, and general flu-like issues. They tend to be temporary conditions that stem from working or spending time in an indoor space. One of the telltale signs of SBS is that people feel better when they are away from the building.

What are Core Air Pollutants that Contribute to Poor IAQ?

Any source that has the capacity to release particles or gases contributes to poor indoor air quality. Coupled with inadequate ventilation and a lack of clean, fresh air, these emissions find their way into the eyes, ears, noses, and lungs of unsuspecting workers. High temperatures and excess humidity make these health hazards even more potent. These rank among the core pollutants that contribute to poor IAQ.

  • Fuel-burning machinery and appliances
  • Tobacco products
  • Products and insulation containing asbestos
  • Recently installed carpeting and flooring
  • Items made from pressed wood
  • Chemicals, including pesticides and cleaning products
  • Poorly maintained HVAC systems
  • Mold, fungi, and bacteria
  • Droppings from cockroaches, rodents, and other pests

It’s also important to note that confined, inadequately ventilated lower-level work environments pose a significant radon danger.

How to Improve Indoor Air Quality

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not necessarily set specific regulations to deal with sick building syndrome and other poor indoor air quality problems. The federal agency acknowledges that headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, as well as irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, are traceable to unhealthy breathing conditions. OSHA also points out that air contaminants may also be responsible for conditions such as asthma.

The worker health protection organization established practical IAQ control strategies to minimize pollutants. Sometimes referred to as OSHA’s “Three Lines of Defense,” they involve administrative controls, eliminating health hazards, and the use of PPE.

  • Eliminating Pollutants: Regular cleanings to remove contaminants, dust, and hazardous mold growths, among other risks, is a primary practice. The use of exhaust fans and cross-ventilation strategies are also essential to reduce particulate matter and improve indoor air quality. The goal is to analyze the space, identify potential airborne health risks and eliminate them at the source.
  • Administrative Controls: When the environment cannot adequately be cleansed of particulate matter and other toxins, administrative controls are a fallback position. These may involve changes to housekeeping that reduce dust and pollutants from entering the space. Training about the risks of poor air helps workers minimize exposure. Lastly, time limits in poor air quality spaces can be established to minimize immersion.
  • Personal Protective Equipment: The use of PPE and disposable protective clothing should be provided and mandated by employers. Breathable masks and other safety gear can prevent particles from entering the lungs, eyes, ears, and making skin contact.

Worker safety organizations recommend using respirators, gloves, protective clothing, eyewear, and footwear whenever possible. Other best practices involve appropriate HVAC maintenance, humidity control, deploying air quality monitoring devices, and employing a buddy system in areas where poor air quality persists.

Professions at High Risk of Poor IAQ Ailments

Although the Harvard study focused on traditional office spaces, there are trades at even higher risk of experiencing flu-like symptoms, cognitive dysfunction, and losing wages due to general illnesses. It’s also probable that people working in certain occupations are more prone to contract severe or fatal conditions based on the particle matter and airborne contaminates. These include the following.

  • Welders and Metal Cutters
  • Construction Workers
  • Cannabis Grow-House Workers
  • Greenhouse Personnel
  • Lower-Level Office Occupants
  • Factory Workers
  • Sawmill Operators
  • Food Processing Plant Employees
  • Automotive Painters and Electroplaters

The hard-working people who carry out these necessary jobs are just the tip of the spear. Contaminated work environments and lack of IAQ control strategies have far-reaching health and well-being implications across every industry. Employers would be well-served to implement air quality safety protocols and stockpile essential PPE and disposable clothing.

Why Employers Should Care About IAQ Control Strategies

From a purely business perspective, employers have a great deal to lose in terms of profitability. Research proves that workers who are negatively impacted by poor IAQ do not perform at their best. The effects of breathing in pollutants slow their reasoning abilities, cause fatigue, and more frequent illnesses.

This usually leads to unnecessarily sick employees taking more than a week out of work compared to their clean-air counterparts. Between frequent call-outs and tasks being completed at a slower pace, employers are bearing the cost of lower productivity.

OSHA’s Three Lines of Defense, which involve eliminating pollutants, administrative controls, and stockpiling PPE are reasonable practices to help boost worker productivity, health, and safety.