How to Avoid Sick Building Syndrome

‘Sick building syndrome’ is an expression which was coined to define a situation where a place of work has been found to cause various ailments and illnesses characterised by headaches, Respiratory Problems and Skin Irritations. It is thought to be caused by indoor pollutants, micro-organisms or inadequate ventilation. The ‘syndrome’ tends to be associated more with office blocks as opposed to factories.

The Symptoms

Building occupants are known to complain of:

  • Headache
  • Eye, nose or throat irritation
  • Dry cough
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to odours

Whilst the above could all, in theory, be the effect of a multitude of other conditions, for ‘sick building syndrome’ to exist, most sufferers should experience a relief from their symptoms within a short period of leaving the building.

Causes

Contributing factors can often relate to the design of the built environment and may include combinations of some or all of the following:

  • Indoor air pollution
  • Artificial fragrance
  • Poor or inappropriate lighting (including absence of or only limited access to natural sunlight
  • Poor heating or ventilation
  • Bad acoustics
  • Poorly designed furnishings, furniture and equipment (e.g. computer monitors photocopiers etc.)
  • Poor ergonomics
  • Chemical or biological contamination

To the owner or occupier of a ‘sick building’, the symptoms may include high levels of Employee Sickness and increased absenteeism, lower productivity, lower job satisfaction and higher levels of staff turnover.

What is the Solution?

Solutions to ‘sick building syndrome’ usually include a combination of the following measures:

  • If the pollutant source is easily identified, removal or modification is required
  • Heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems should be kept clean and regularly maintained. They should also be replaced or modified if other environmental issues come into play
  • Smoking should be banned or, at the very least, restricted to a place well away from those who do not wish to be affected by cigarette fumes. Where smoking indoors is permitted, extractors should be used to direct the smoke outside the building
  • Try to ensure access to natural sunlight and opening windows for ventilation can also help giving the occupants a feeling of ‘control’ over their internal environment
  • Regular cleaning of soft furnishings to avoid the built up of dust and dust mites
  • Wherever possible sources of pollution should be eliminated or relocated to a place where there are fewer people. For example, the removal of gas heaters or photocopiers from busy work areas
  • Canteens or kitchens should be kept clean with food and drink remains regularly disposed of

Of course, there are some sceptics who debunk the existence of ‘sick building syndrome’. Nevertheless, basic hygiene and cleanliness seems to be at the root of eliminating most of the triggers for those who complain about it. It is impossible to remove all pollutants that cause building related illnesses but with adequate, well-maintained ventilation and the removal of obvious sources of pollution, the risks can be drastically reduced.

Last Updated on 25 May 2021

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