Creating healthy work environments for people is becoming more important than ever. Not only does it make good business sense, but many of the essential factors required to create these healthy work spaces are also required under health and safety law.
In this practical guide the built environment specialists at WTS highlight a number of key environmental factors that can effect the health and well-being of people in the workplace including temperature and humidity, lighting, noise, and the presence of volatile organic compounds.
The guide concludes with a look at other issues that can be important in the creation of healthy workplaces including good cleaning and maintenance procedures, testing and performance monitoring, and the importance of good management systems and staff communication.
Creating a healthy work environment
It is the responsibility of all business owners, landlords, and building and facilities managers to identify and manage the risks associated with Sick Building Syndrome in order to create healthy work environments for those people using their buildings.
In the UK the Health and Safety Executive gives extensive guidance about what steps businesses should take to achieve this.
Their guidance covers both current best practice and the legal requirements set-out in the legislation concerned with providing safe workplaces for people.
The specific legislation which applies to your business will depend on the type of work you are doing.
However, some of the legislation and guidance on best practice covers:
Healthy workplace environments
Employers should regularly measure the fresh air supply and ventilation rates in to the work spaces they control to make sure that the guideline levels are being reached and maintained.
A common way of dealing with poor indoor air quality in the workplace is simply to increase the rates of ventilation which will help to remove airborne contaminants more quickly. However, this isn’t always the solution though.
A better approach is to try to and work out what is causing the pollution problems in the air, whether that be smells, dust or fumes.
Detailed guidance is available in a range of publications from the Health and Safety Executive.
Managing workplace temperatures
One of the main factors affecting workplace comfort is air temperature.
Despite a persistent urban myth, in the UK there is currently no standard temperature recommended for a workplace.
In general, the recommended minimum working temperature is 16°C, but whether this is appropriate will depend on the type of workplace and the types of activities being undertaken.
16°C may be too cold for an office environment, where the normal temperature is more appropriate at around 19°C.
Employers should install thermometers to accurately measure the temperature rather than relying on a “feeling” of whether it’s too hot or too cold.
Place thermometers close to where people are working, away from windows and out of direct sunlight.
Measuring humidity levels in the workplace
Another factor which can often contribute to complaints of Sick Building Syndrome in the workplace is humidity or relative humidity.
Humidity on its own is rarely enough to cause reports of sickness.
However, a very damp and humid working environment can make other problems worse.
A warm, damp environment can allow bacteria to flourish.
If on the other hand the humidity is very low, managers might get reports of other health issues including dry eyes, sore throat or itchy skin.
In the average office, humidity should typically be maintained between 40% and 70%.
If the temperature is high in the office, try to keep humidity towards the 40% end of the range.
Lighting levels in the workplace
Inadequate lighting is another important factor that can lead to complaints of Sick Building Syndrome symptoms.
Wherever possible, try to get as much natural light into the office or workplace as you can.
Try to avoid lights which “glare”, flicker excessively and are noisy when switched on.
Any broken or faulty lights should be repaired as soon as possible.
If workers are using display screens or computers, the lighting should be appropriate for the type of work being done.
Again, there is lots of guidance on appropriate lighting and standards in the Health and Safety Executives leaflet “Lighting at Work”.
Monitoring workplace noise
Noise is another of these factors which can be troublesome but is unlikely, on its own, to result in reports of Sick Building Syndrome.
The effect of noise can be very disruptive though, leading to low morale, and low productivity among the workforce.
Try to source office equipment which operates as quietly as possible.
Other types of unpredictable noise might require different steps to fix the problem.
If there are lots of complaints about noisy air conditioning systems or ducts, then this is often something you won’t be able to fix without expert help from engineers.
If you are refurbishing an office space or other workplace, then consider the effect of noise when carrying out the works.
Increased noise levels can be the unexpected consequences of swapping carpets for hard floors or removing false ceilings.
VOC exposure at work
Under certain circumstances, irritant chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be released from new office equipment or soft furnishings such as carpets or sofas.
VOCs have also been linked with Sick Building Syndrome and any materials associated with their release should be avoided.
Levels are usually highest shortly after the items have been installed.
If the problem does not resolve itself in the short term, then it might be best to get the experts in to advise on what you can do.
The problem with VOCs and other chemicals is that even the most sensitive detection methods can find it difficult to identify the pollutants.
Sampling the air is not straightforward, it requires specialist expertise, detection equipment and can be costly.
Rather than leaping immediately to testing the air, it can often be best to take a step back and look instead for detailed information about the emission characteristics of the items you have purchased.
When buying, try to source items with low VOC emissions, such as low levels of formaldehyde in furniture products.
Essential maintenance activities
One of the best way of preventing Sick Building Syndrome or at least minimising the symptoms is to have an effective and comprehensive maintenance schedule for your work environment and the equipment serving it.
A detailed planned maintenance programme should be drawn up to cover the following:
You should keep records of how often items should be inspected and maintained.
The type of inspection will depend on the required maintenance but might include measuring indoor air quality, monitoring ventilation rates, simple visual inspections, cleaning out or replacing filters, checks for damaged components or routine cleaning.
Think also about practical issues around maintenance, such as access to the ventilation or heating systems.
For example, it may be better to schedule air conditioning maintenance for January, when it is unlikely to be in operation.
Remember that lighting, heating or air conditioning should be adjusted as the light levels or temperature changes outside.
Keeping detailed records of the things you do
Always remember to keep detailed records of everything you do, and specify a procedure for bringing abnormal results to the attention of a supervisor or manager. This should help you identify problems quickly.
Decide which members of staff are going to be responsible for the inspection and maintenance of your heating, ventilation or other services.
Ensure they are properly trained and have the knowledge and skills (competence) to do the job properly.
Additionally, you should ensure that they have the skills to manage external maintenance contractors where appropriate.
It’s always best to set down requirements and maintenance schedules in writing so there is no confusion.
The importance of workplace cleaning
Effective cleaning of workplace environments and the equipment used to service them has an important role to play in avoiding the health issues and complaints associated with Sick Building Syndrome.
The cleaning frequency will depend on individual circumstances but as a guide, the following frequencies are appropriate for most operations:
Just as important to creating a healthy work environment is the method of cleaning, and which products you use.
When using chemical cleaning products always carry out and follow the recommendations of any COSHH assessments that have been prepared.
When cleaning plant and machinery, always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines to the letter.
Try to avoid any types of cleaning products which have a very strong or pungent smell.
Don’t use cleaning methods which are going to increase dust levels or release particles into the air.
Consider using special vacuum cleaners with final filters to trap particles inside.
Cleaning is never effective when desks are littered with paper and other clutter.
Many businesses address this by having a clean desk policy, banning staff from leaving paperwork on surfaces or on the floor.
Think also about the timing of cleaning… it may be better to get the cleaners in during evening time, to allow any smells or dust to dissipate before work starts again the following morning.
Management systems and good communication
Dissatisfaction and low morale in the work force doesn’t cause Sick Building Syndrome, but it can make symptoms seem much worse, and make staff more likely to complain.
People who feel that they don’t have any control over their working environment are more likely to report Sick Building Syndrome symptoms.
The issue is particularly acute in large open plan offices where staff feel they have no privacy and no control over the levels of light, heat, humidity or ventilation.
The problem can also be worse when the work being carried out appears to be routine and monotonous.
On the other hand, staff who are happy and well-motivated are more likely to come forward with early warning of developing problems, especially when they are certain that management will listen to them.
Business owners and managers should develop effective ways of communicating with staff, keeping them up to speed with any steps that are being taken to deal with problems affecting the quality of their workplace environments.
Many businesses set up a safety committee to deal with such issues, with both managers and employees attending regular meetings.
Other issues that can help create good, healthy work environments
Workers may also complain about poor design of their job role, or workspace.
It’s usually a good idea to allow staff to influence how their own job roles are performed, targets are set, and monitored.
Allow employees, where possible, to break up routine or repetitive tasks, and make sure they take regular breaks.
Additionally, you should consider the design of any open-plan workspaces.
Seemingly unimportant factors such as the location of windows, colour schemes and the number of plants can greatly increase worker comfort.
The design of workstations is equally important, and should be reviewed regularly when staff changes.
Specialist workplace investigations and indoor air quality solutions
WTS offer a comprehensive range of indoor air quality testing and workplace investigation solutions to support business owners, property managers, health and safety professionals, and facilities management specialists.
Our experts can provide advice and support to help you identify the most appropriate strategies for the identification, investigation and prevention of sick building syndrome issues.
With offices in London serving the South and South East England, Manchester (North West), Birmingham (Midlands), Bristol (South East England and Wales), Leeds (North and North East) and Glasgow (Scotland), supported by regional teams of specially trained technicians and consultants we can offer cost effective indoor air quality solutions across the whole of the UK and internationally.
Contact us today to learn how our workplace solutions can help you keep you, your staff and other people safe.
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