The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve Employee Health and the Company Bottom Line

As many Facility Managers know, OSHA requires that building owners and managers provide building users with a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that may cause harm to employees.”  Falling under this broad umbrella is indoor air quality.  Poor indoor air quality can impact both the health and performance of building users, and when their health is impacted, so can the company’s bottom line.

Further, we should also know:

Every year, air pollution causes the premature deaths of between 5.5 million and 7 million people, making it more deadly than HIV, traffic accidents and diabetes combined.  The majority of these deaths–about 4 million–are caused by indoor air pollution.  In Europe, for example, air pollution shortens the average life expectancy by nearly one year.  Worldwide, more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas breathe air that exceeds pollution limits advised by the World Health Organization (WHO). 1

With these concerns in mind, here are some reminders and new ways Facility Managers can help maintain healthy indoor quality:

  1. Get to know the “sounds” your HVAC and ventilation systems make.  Is it quieter than usual?  This likely means airflow is slower, which can be the result of soiled air filters.  Is the system noisier than usual?  This may also be the result of soiled air filters, and also suggests the system may be struggling, which can increase energy costs and impact temperature settings.
  2. Proactively set up a set schedule for inspecting HVAC and ventilation systems, as well as changing filters.  Inspections should not be performed only in response to noise or a concern.  Managers must practice preventive maintenance when it comes to indoor air quality, catching issues before they become problems.
  3. When developing a set schedule to inspect and change filters, realize it should be based on seasons, not on a time schedule.  There will be seasons of the year when there are more pollutants in the air that can impact indoor air quality. Filters should be changed more often during these seasons.
  4. Realize that not all HVAC filtering systems are created equal.  Often the filters recommended for an HVAC system are designed to meet minimum IAQ standards. Facility Managers are encouraged to work with HVAC experts to find the most effective filters for their HVAC systems.
  5. Install indoor air quality monitors.  Carbon dioxide monitors are becoming more commonplace now and monitors that can measure volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which we know can cause health problems, are now in the pipeline.
  6. Realize that floor-coverings can impact IAQ.  We now know that carpet can absorb airborne pollutants.  Because of this, some medical facilities have returned to installing carpet in areas used by patients most sensitive to IAQ.  The use of luxury vinyl tile (LTV) is also an option.  LTV floors typically do not need to be finished (waxed).  “Wax is optional, which reduces the need for cleaning solutions or maintenance equipment that might harm indoor air quality,” says Daniel Collins, director of health care markets for a floor-covering manufacturer.
  7. Related to this, remember that traditional cleaning solutions can impact IAQ.  Green-certified cleaning solutions, on the other hand, are designed to have less impact on IAQ and have fewer VOCs.
  8. Inspect storage and maintenance areas typically used by custodial workers and engineers.  Chemicals may spill on floors, or they may release gases, either of which can produce fumes that become absorbed into the facility’s ventilation system.  Related to this, if there are intake vents in these areas, they should be closed.
  9. Do not store papers, cardboard, or similar paper items in storage and maintenance areas.  These can produce what is called, “fine dust” that can be very harmful if collected and circulated by HVAC systems.  According to Bob Williamson, president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), “we’ve had people who have developed occupational asthma from breathing fine dust.  Others reported problems including bronchitis, allergic reactions, migraines, bacterial infections, conjunctivitis, and sore throats.”
  10. Check HVAC and ventilation system intakes.  Very often, these are located on the roofs of buildings.  In damp climates that receive considerable amounts of rain, pools of water can accumulate.  Over time, these puddles can harbor germs, bacteria, and pollutants that can be sucked into the air moving system.
  11. Air ducts and the inside of air handling units do need to be cleaned.  Once again, this is very often addressed when problems surface.  How frequently they need to be cleaned varies considerably; however, an astute HVAC engineer can offer suggestions.
  12. If unit “ventilators” are installed in the facility, set a schedule to check and clean these devices.  Originally designed for home use and referred to as “comfort solutions,” they are typically installed in areas of a facility that are not adequately kept warm or cool by the building’s HVAC system. 
  13. Turn off HVAC and ventilation systems after business hours and on weekends.  Not only will this help save energy, but it can also delay the need to clean these units, air ducts, as well as the frequency of changing air filters.

Many Facility Managers believe that over the past thirty years, poor indoor air quality is a problem that has been addressed and corrected.  That is not quite right.  What has happened is that we have learned more about what causes poor indoor air quality, its impact on health, worker productivity, morale, and taking all of this into consideration, a company’s bottom line.  Following the steps mentioned here will help address and improve all of these issues.

Ron Segura has over 45 years of experience in all segments of the professional cleaning industry including ten years as Manager of Janitorial Operations for Walt Disney Pictures and Television. To contact him, call 650-315-8933.

1. Douglas Main, “Your Office Air Is Killing You; New Devices That Monitor Pollutants in Homes and Offices Could Save Millions of Lives a Year,” Newsweek, June 10, 2016,