Indoor air quality (IAQ) in the workplace is a growing concern for most businesses, and for good reason. The air quality of a workplace can significantly affect the health, comfort, and productivity of building occupants. Although serious health problems related to IAQ are rare, building occupant comfort and wellbeing are an increasingly important topic for property managers, facility providers, and tenants.
It is important for anyone who is in charge of maintaining a clean space to know how contaminants are spread around. Most contaminants come from the outdoors and find their way inside a home or a business. From there, they settle on any given surface within that space, and if not addressed they can significantly impact IAQ. Most people clean based on appearance, which often means they focus on the condition of the floor since it is so prominent visually
Floor surfaces are indeed an important element in ensuring overall building health. Contaminates and particles can be kicked up by foot traffic and moved on the air stream, spreading to other surfaces. Unchecked these contaminants can cause building occupant discomfort and health concerns.
The causes and consequences of poor IAQ are complex, but there are some basic factors that building owners, managers, employers, and occupants should know in order to address IAQ concerns.
What do we mean by “good” Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)?
Most occupants barely notice when indoor air quality is “good,” but most people will often recognize when the air is bad. IAQ is a problem when the air contains dust and objectionable odors, chemical contaminants, dampness or mold.
General guidelines for achieving good IAQ include:
- Comfort factors (i.e., temperature, humidity, air movement) in a range that is acceptable for most occupants
- Mechanical equipment and building surfaces are maintained in sanitary condition.
- Significant emission sources, such as large copy machines, are separated from occupied spaces and air intakes.
- Major sources of chemical or biological contamination are promptly identified and controlled.
- Occupied areas are regularly cleaned and good housekeeping practices are in place.
- Operations, maintenance, and construction activities are performed in a manner that minimizes occupant exposure to airborne contaminants.
An environmentally responsible cleaning program must work.Need A Program?
Common sources and complaints about IAQ:
Contaminants may originate from a variety of sources both inside and outside of a building, and may include airborne chemicals, bacteria, fungi, pollen and dust. Although they are not indoor pollutants, factors such as temperature, humidity, lighting, noise and personal/work-related stress can affect occupants’ perceptions of indoor air quality.
There are a wide variety of complaints that revolve around IAQ ranging from mild discomfort to serious health issues. Some minor health related issues may be due to allergic reactions. Typical indoor allergens include dust mites, cat dander, and mold spores.
When exposed to such allergens,
10 percent or more of the population may exhibit symptoms including sneezing, swollen airways or asthma-like attacks. Individuals with a building-related allergy will experience similar symptoms in other environments if the particular allergen is present in both places.
Some health-related complaints associated with poor air quality mimic those of the flu or a cold: headaches, sinus problems, congestion, dizziness, nausea, fatigue and irritation of the eyes, nose or throat. The indoor environment is not usually considered the cause of occupant symptoms unless the symptoms are shared by a number of occupants, found to be unreasonably persistent or there is a distinct and suspect odor or other unusual quality to the air.
What can be done about IAQ Complaints?
Occupant concerns should be taken seriously and responded to quickly. First, the following information should be gathered and verified, preferably through interviews with occupants and a visual inspection:
- What are the specific complaints?
- Where in the building are similar concerns about IAQ occurring?
- When does the problem occur?
- When and where did it first occur?
- Who is affected? Is it isolated, or over a large area?
- What health effects or discomfort are occupants experiencing?
- Do the health effects cease soon after leaving the building, or over the weekend?
- Is there any environmental condition (e.g., weather) or activity (e.g., remodeling, use of the photocopier, spraying of pesticides) inside or outside the building associated with occurrence of the problem?
Second, analyze the information.
Determine if there is a time or space pattern to the complaints. Conduct a walk-through of the area to identify potential sources of contamination or unusual conditions. Also, consider whether the problem may be linked with an activity or condition inside or outside the building, or a malfunctioning HVAC system. In many cases, the source of the complaints may be readily apparent upon investigation, such as HVAC system air intakes next to an exhaust source or a loading dock, the recent addition of large photocopiers in a small room without proper ventilation system modification, an incorrectly set or broken thermostat, or recent remodeling issues.
How can floor care related IAQ problems can be prevented?
It is easy to think that sweeping, vacuuming and mopping periodically are enough to keep your floors clean; after all, if it looks clean it probably is clean, right? Well that school of thought can seriously hurt the IAQ of your building and drastically affect occupant health. We know that an indoor area not only contains its own set of contaminants, but outdoor contaminants find their way indoors as well, which according to the EPA, contributes to indoor air pollution being 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air pollution.
It is easy to see dust and dirt on surfaces that are closer to eye level such as tables and desks, so when people clean those surfaces they generally knock the dust and dirt off and let them fall to the floor where they can blend in and go unnoticed for a long time. The problem is that in high traffic areas in a building, this dust and dirt along with other pollutants constantly get kicked up into the air and every occupant of that workspace will breathe in those contaminants.
In order to minimize this risk, floor maintenance must be incorporated into a building’s daily cleaning routine in order to ensure all contaminants tracked in are dealt with so they don’t get added into the contaminant pool that building occupants will track in the next day.
Replacing the Wrong Equipment
In order to clean your floors effectively, you have to know what type of surface you are cleaning and how to clean it. Most businesses have a mix of carpeting and hard floors and only have to deal with non-toxic area pollution (i.e. no chemical or bio-hazard clean-up).
The Right Product Makes A Difference
While they have a higher up-front costs, the savings associated with changing from a mop and bucket to an automatic scrubber can be significant. Matching the right scrubber to the task can result in even more savings by greatly increasing worker productivity.
“Having an advanced air-filtration system, such as a HEPA filter, is becoming a requirement in most vacuum cleaning situations.”
Obviously, if you have carpeting it needs to be vacuumed with H.E.P.A. filtered vacuum cleaners highly recommended. HEPA filtered vacuums help ensure contaminants are contained in the collection bag, and not redistributed back into the air stream. In order to they don’t contribute to poor IAQ, carpeting should be extracted on a regular basis as well.
When it comes to hard surface flooring, using an automatic scrubber can be a quicker way of cleaning than using a mop and bucket. An automatic scrubber is more effective than a mop and bucket because of one pass cleaning. Not only is dry time eliminated or reduced, contaminates are also generally better controlled.
In addition to what a space owner/manager can do to make sure their IAQ stays at safe levels, occupants can help improve IAQ by:
- promptly reporting unusual odors or discomfort
- being aware of weather conditions or other factors associated with periods when IAQ concerns appear
- using chemical formulations sparingly and only where dedicated ventilation is provided
- not taping off air supply diffusers (since it disrupts proper mixing and distribution of air)
- minimizing use of fragrances, scented cosmetics, and air-fresheners
Indoor air quality concerns are a fact of life for building owners, business owners, managers, and occupants. It is not possible to satisfy every occupant at all times, however, it is possible and necessary to provide an indoor environment that is healthy and safe.
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