2 June 2023

Office / Indoor Air Quality – Investigating IAQ Complaints

The air quality of the indoor environment such as a non-industrial office environment can significantly affect the health, comfort, and productivity of building occupants.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) in the workplace, such an office environment, is the subject of much attention recently, and for good reason. Although serious irreversible health problems related to IAQ in non-industrial office environments are rare, the perception of endangered health is increasingly common among building occupants.

To date, the causes and consequences of poor IAQ are complex and not completely understood, but there are some basic factors that in many cases address IAQ concerns.

IAQ is a problem when the air contains dust and objectionable odours, chemical contaminants, dampness, mould or bacteria.

Poor indoor air quality can lead to a number of physical symptoms and complaints. The most common of these include:

  • Thermal discomfort: too hot or too cold
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath (eg. insufficient oxygen related to high carbon dioxide levels)
  • Sinus congestion
  • Coughs
  • Sneezing
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Skin irritation
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Skin irritation

These physical symptoms and complaints are often attributed to indoor air quality, however, it is important to note that indoor air quality is not always the cause. Other factors in the indoor environment such as noise, overcrowding, improper lighting, poor ergonomic conditions, and job stress can also lead to these symptoms and complaints. In many situations, a combination of factors is to blame.

An increased likelihood of complaints is usually associated with factors such as the installation of new furnishings, uncontrolled renovation activities, poor air circulation and air flow, persistent moisture and ongoing low relative humidity. Complaints may also increase when there is a stressful work environment, such as impending layoffs, a great deal of overtime, or an ongoing conflict among staff members and management.

A number of factors can affect the indoor air quality of a building or facility, including:

  • The physical layout of the building
  • The building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system
  • The outdoor climate
  • The people who occupy the building
  • Contaminants emitted inside and entered from outside the building

Poor indoor air quality and indoor air contaminants affect some people more seriously, including:

  • People with allergies or asthma
  • People with respiratory disease
  • People whose immune system is suppressed as a result of disease or treatment
  • People who wear contact lenses

Indoor air contaminants can originate within a building or be drawn in from outdoors. These contaminants can lead to indoor air quality problems, even if the HVAC system is well designed, regularly maintained, and functioning to its optimum conditions.

Sources of contaminants inside the building environment may include:

  • Dust, dirt, or mould in the HVAC system (eg. cooling coils, ducts, registers)
  • Office equipment such as laser printers and copiers (eg. airborne particulates, ozone)
  • Personal activities such as smoking or cooking (eg. Volatile organic compounds, nicotine)
  • Housekeeping activities such as cleaning and dusting
  • Maintenance activities such as painting (eg. Volatile organic compounds)
  • Spills of water or other liquids
  • Special use areas such as print shops and laboratories
  • Industrial processes such as dry cleaning
  • Moisture affected building materials (eg. mould and bacteria)

Sources of contaminants from outside the building may include:

  • Vehicle exhaust
  • Pollen and dust (eg. long term build up if cleaning regime is inadequate)
  • Smoke
  • Unsanitary debris or dumpsters near the outdoor air intake

Depending on the complaint reported by building occupants, an indoor air quality investigation should include the following:

  • Interview with building occupants to identify potential causes such as identifiable odours, recent changes that may have caused the issue, water intrusion event, increased occupancy, cleaning regime, etc.
  • Assessment of the ventilation rate (generally when the indoor carbon dioxide levels are over 650 parts per million (ppm) above ambient outdoor levels)
  • Walkthrough inspection of the building and the ventilation system (filters, cooling coils, condensation trays, air ducts, etc.)
  • Sampling for airborne contaminants suspected to be present in concentrations associated with the reported complaints
  • Documenting the complaint, the investigation, and any actions taken.

Occupant concerns regarding indoor air quality should be taken seriously and responded to as soon as possible. Initial information should be collected, checked and verified, preferably through interviews with occupants and a visual inspection:

  • Details about the specific complaint
  • Location(s) of the building where similar concerns about IAQ have been reported
  • Time of occurrence of the IAQ problem
  • When and where did it start and what has changed in the building just before the problem was first experienced
  • People affected and extent of the affected area(s)
  • Specific details on the health effects or discomfort occupants are experiencing
  • If the health effects stop soon after leaving the building, or over the weekend
  • If the symptoms have been diagnosed by a medical practitioner
  • If there are any identifiable practices inside or outside the building occurring at a time coinciding with the reported issues
  • If the air conditioning contractor or the building engineer evaluated the HVAC system or other conditions and the conclusions reached

Once the information above is gathered and analysed the walkthrough inspection by a specialist indoor air quality consultant should be undertaken to identify potential sources of contamination or unusual conditions. Generally, at this stage the IAQ consultant should be able to narrow the possibilities and developing air sampling strategy if required to confirm potential causes of the IAQ problem and decide on suitable solutions or if further investigation is required.

Generally, most IAQ issues can be resolved by addressing maintenance issues of the HVAC system (eg. air exchange rates, improved ventilation and air flow, filter change and disinfection of the internal surfaces of the air handling unit and the air ducts), HEPA vacuuming of the entire space, building repairs, addressing moisture issues, removing potential sources of contamination, implementing a new cleaning regime).

Under the Work Health & Safety Legislation, it is the duty of the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to provide a work environment that is free from risks to health and safety.

If you require assistance regarding the indoor air quality at your workplace please contact SESA on 02 9822 8406.