Think about air quality problems, and you’re likely conjuring up a picture of a factory loaded with smokestacks pouring pollutants into the air. Of course, the truth is more complicated, as factories are just one part of a complicated set of variables that make up air pollution.
But it begs the question: If places of work affect the air so heavily on the outside, how safe, or not, is it to work in an indoor environment? There’s no one answer, as it depends on many things unique to each factory or office. But one would think there are some basic principles to consider, so I decided to do a little digging in order to find them. Government sites dominated my search results. Prepare yourself, here’s what the U.S. government wants you to know about air quality at work.
OSHA’s Take on Indoor Air Quality
In the United States, you’re not going to go too far in a journey involving worker safety without hearing about OSHA, otherwise known as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Here’s a few notes on information offered to the worker who wonders about air quality in their workplace.
- Many factors affect indoor air quality (IAQ) such as ventilation, temperature, humidity, and activities outside a workplace that affect the quality of air coming in the building. Mold, construction, pesticides, and even cleaning supplies are also factors.
- My first big surprise: “OSHA does not have IAQ standards.” Really? An agency created to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards” doesn’t have air quality standards? That’s hard to believe, but here it’s coming from the proverbial horse’s mouth. The same sentence denying any IAQ standards goes on to mention OSHA does have standards regarding ventilation and certain air contaminants. So does OSHA have standards for the air we breathe at work or not? Your guess is as good as mine.
- Surprise #2: OSHA lists the states that have indoor air regulations. It’s a list of two states. That’s right; out of 50 states, only two have regulations relating to air quality, at least according to OSHA. A sidebar on the page mentions that 28 states have OSHA-approved state plans, so I’m confused yet again. If you have questions about whether or not your state has regulations regarding indoor air quality in the workplace, I can’t help you.
- Worker rights are addressed. A box lists your rights and options if you feel your job or workplace is unsafe.
- The Frequently Asked Questions page for the Indoor Air Quality section is aimed at workers, not employers. Two questions that may be of interest to you: What should my employer be doing to prevent IAQ problems? and If I think there is an IAQ problem at work or I think my office or building where I work is making me sick, what can I do?
- OSHA makes clear that U.S. law prevents an employer from retaliating against you for blowing the whistle on air problems at your place of work.
If you work in an office, you’re not out of the woods with regards to air quality problems, and interestingly enough, a different U.S. agency addresses this concern.
The EPA Talks Air Quality for the Office
This surprised me. A search for “factory indoor air quality” led to a page on the Environmental Protection Agency’s site titled An Office Building Occupants Guide to Indoor Air Quality. My understanding has been that the EPA is more concerned what goes on in the outside environment, and OSHA was more concerned with the inside of a workplace. Apparently I’m wrong. Here’s what I found interesting from their page.
- Some of these guidelines are so obvious that they border on being insulting to the reader and contribute to my suspicion that not many people outside the safety industry read this stuff in the first place. A case in point is found in the “If You Manage an Office” section. The fifth bullet reads: “Avoid procedures and products that can cause indoor air quality problems.” You think? C’mon, EPA, give us some meat here, not vague gobbledegook that makes useful information harder to find.
- Other guidelines seem to be written for a dream world. The last bullet in that same section recommends you to “Encourage building management to develop a preventive indoor air quality management program following guidance issued by EPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).” Yeah, because you know your building manager is dying to hear about EPA and NIOSH guidelines. You’d probably have a better chance of improving matters by having an honest dialogue about change, and leaving the EPA and NIOSH out of it.
- Factors that affect air quality are identified, including the usual suspects: pollutant sources, ventilation, and moisture levels. Sensibly enough, they recommend a three-pronged approach of controlling pollution sources, diluting pollutants through ventilation, and removing pollutants through the use of filtration.
- I did find the section Factors that Affect Occupant Comfort and Productivity to be interesting. There are several things in the workplace that seem to have a bearing on air quality, even if they don’t really have an affect on it. I have to feel a bit for employers on this one; the factors listed below can be hard to control all the time.
- Glare from light sources, both inside and out
- Furniture crowding
- Aesthetics of the office design
- The ergonomics of the work area
- Noise levels
- What can you do to keep the air clean in your office? Don’t block or interfere with airflow, clean up spills, don’t store food outside the fridge, follow the smoking policy, and take the trash out regularly. Sounds simple enough.
Sounds simple enough. That brings me to the thought I keep having as I look at these documents.
Does it have to be so complicated?
Two concerns that employers often have when considering options to protect their employees from poor air quality is the expense and the complication. I hope to cover the expense issue in a future post. But the concern over how complicated it is to comply with government guidelines on air quality is justified, for both employer and employee. OSHA’s guide on Indoor Air Quality in Commercial and Institutional Buildings is twenty-eight pages long! Who has the time or willingness to go through that? Government-supplied information about air quality, at least on the sites I looked at today, is intimidating and hard to distill down to the salient points. It’s too hard to sift through information just to find what you can do as an employee. It’s worse for an employer trying to comply with government guidance.
Perhaps the solution lies in providing useful information without all the government-speak. I find it hard to believe that simplifying these documents down to a list of action items that everyone can understand is impossible. At the moment, all we can do is put in the hard work of familiarizing ourselves with what we can do as individuals, put it into practice at work, and hope that things get better in the future on the documentation front.
Until next time, breathe easy!