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Low workplace air quality and your health: Why ventilation matters

Lana Bandoim's picture
Workplace air quality

As more people are spending more time indoors, the impact of air quality on their health is growing. In the workplace, low air quality can have a negative impact on both health and productivity. Whether you work in a factory setting or an office building, poor air quality can be an issue. Prolonged exposure to poor quality air can lead to both acute illnesses and chronic health conditions, and this is why it is important to learn about your rights regarding the air you breathe at work.


Common indoor air pollutants

Thousands of potential air pollutants exist indoors. Since indoor environments contain these pollutants rather than allowing them to disperse, people who work in these situations experience a higher risk of exposure.

According to the American Industrial Hygiene Association, poor indoor air quality can result from bacteria, fungi, pollen and dust. Pollutants can be even more concentrated in factory environments. Depending on the products being manufactured, workers can come in contact with chemicals, abrasive blasting residues, fiberglass dust, welding fumes, metal particles, woodworking dust, oil mist, powder coatings and others.

Health consequences of poor air quality

According to the EPA, indoor air can be two to five times as polluted as outdoor air. This can have dire consequences on the health of the people who work in environments with poor air quality. In office settings, employees are at risk of developing multiple problems.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has estimated that bad air costs companies $15 billion every year. Not only does poor air quality compromise employee productivity, but it also leads to more sick days, which means employers are spending more money on less production.

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In factory environments, the problem is even worse. Poor air circulation and persistent moisture can contribute to the formation of volatile organic compounds. They can cause acute symptoms such as the loss of coordination, nosebleeds, difficulty breathing, headaches, fatigue, dizziness and nausea.

The long-term health impact can include damage to major internal functions such as the central nervous system and the circulatory system. People can develop problems such as asthma and hay fever, and they may have never had these issues prior to exposure. Unfortunately, workers who already suffer from heart and lung conditions are especially vulnerable to unhealthy indoor air. Many people with chronic health conditions experience worse symptoms after being exposed to pollutants.

Additionally, the World Health Organization officially classified air pollution as carcinogenic in 2013. It labeled the lungs and the bladder as particularly susceptible to cancer-causing chemicals in the air. Indoor environments tend to foster the proliferation of substances like asbestos and radon, which are known carcinogens.

Strategies for improving air quality

Although poor indoor air quality is a problem, it is an issue that is not difficult to solve. The first and most important step is to make sure workplaces follow all the OSHA rules and regulations. These principles are put in place to make sure employees are safe and healthy.

Although OSHA does not have specific standards surrounding indoor air quality, the organization does regulate factors like ventilation, contaminant levels and other contributing aspects. The two exceptions to this rule are California and New Jersey; both states have indoor air regulations in place.

Employers should begin making improvements by implementing a high quality ventilation system. In an office environment, a standard HVAC system with proper filtration is generally enough to control air quality. However, manufacturing settings require a more involved ventilation system because ventilation hoods and similar equipment are not enough.

Workers have a right to be safe and healthy in their work environment. A good ventilation system should do more than just remove odors and regulate temperature. It must also filter toxins from the environment and maximize employee comfort, wellness and productivity.