Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation - Article describing office ventilation, workplace air pollution, pollutant exposure, chemical odors, outgassing, chemical contaminants, and aroma therapy. Adjustable Bed, Memory Foam Mattress, Beds and Pillows - Natural Back Pain Relief Products
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Indoor Air Quality
and Ventilation



Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is an increasingly important issue in the work environment. The study of indoor air quality and pollutant levels within office environments is a complex problem. The complexity of studying and measuring the quality of office environments arises from various factors including:
  • Office building floor plans are frequently changing to accommodate increasingly more employees and reorganization.
  • Office buildings frequently undergo building renovations such as installation of new carpet, modular office partitions and free-standing offices, and painting.
  • Many of the apparent health symptoms are vague and common to both the office and home environment.
  • Guidelines or standards for permissible personal exposure limits to pollutants within office buildings are very limited.

Many times odors are associated with chemical contaminants from inside or outside the office space, or from the building fabric. This is particularly noticeable following building renovation or installation of new carpeting. Out-gassing from such things as paints, adhesives, sealants, office furniture, carpeting, and vinyl wall coverings is the source of a variety of irritant compounds. In most cases, these chemical contaminants can be measured at levels above ambient (normal background) but far below any existing occupational evaluation criteria.

NIOSH has conducted hundreds of building studies which indicate that the most likely sources of this problem are - poor ventilation, poor thermal conditions, too high or low humidity, emissions from office machines, copiers and other building contaminants and poor ergonomic layout of workstations.

Overview of Ventilation Design

Air enters office buildings or spaces through both mechanical ventilation systems as well as naturally through leaks around windows, doors, etc. Newer, larger buildings which are highly energy efficient due to sealed windows and heavy insulation primarily depend on mechanical ventilation. Older, small, and low occupancy office buildings can be adequately ventilated through natural sources which include air leakage through opened windows and doors, as well as through cracks in the windows and walls, and other openings.

In a modern office building, the heating ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC) is designed to keep occupants comfortable and healthy by controlling the amount of outside air that is added to the building atmosphere, filtering both incoming and recirculated air to remove particulates and controlling the temperature. The HVAC system includes all heating, cooling, and ventilation equipment serving a building: furnaces or boilers, chillers, cooling towers, air handling units, exhaust fans, ductwork, filters, steam (or heating water) piping. A ventilation system consists of a blower to move the air, ductwork to deliver air to the room, and vents to distribute the air. A good ventilation design will distribute supply air uniformly to each area and especially areas with office machines. An effectively designed area will not have the supply and exhaust vent too close together because fresh air may be removed before it is adequately distributed throughout the area. Exhaust fans are often located a significant distance away from supply vents. [A simple way to determine if the ventilation system is running a vent as a supply or an exhaust is by holding a tissue near the vent.] If the tissue moves, the air is being circulated and the direction the tissue is blown will determine the type of vent.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has established a general guideline of 20 cubic feet of outside air per minute/per person for an office environment. This is a sufficient amount of air to dilute building contaminants and maintain a healthy environment. Indoor air quality complaints increase significantly in offices that are not supplied sufficient outside air.

Environmental Parameters

A ventilation system should provide for a comfortable environment with respect to humidity and temperature. The overall goal of climate control is to provide an environment that is not too cold, hot, dry or humid, and that is free from drafts and odors. Humidity refers to the amount of moisture in the air and extremes in humidification levels can influence how comfortable you may be. When the air is too humid, it makes people feel uncomfortable (wet, clammy) and can promote mold growth. On the other hand, low humidity conditions (which typically occur in the winter months) dry out the nasal and respiratory passages. Low humidity may be associated with an increased susceptibility to upper respiratory infections. Static electricity problems (affecting hair and clothes, particularly synthetic fibers) are good indicators of an office with low relative humidity.

Excessively high or low temperatures in an office area can also lead to symptoms in building occupants and reduce productivity. High temperatures have been associated with fatigue, lassitude, irritability, headache and decrease in performance, coordination and alertness. A number of factors interact to determine whether people are comfortable with the temperature of the indoor air. The activity level, age, and physiology of each person affect the thermal comfort requirements of that individual. Extreme heat, which is unlikely to be found in an office environment, can result in heat rash, exhaustion, and fainting. Workers who may be less alert or fatigued from a high temperature environment may be more prone to accidents.

Likewise, if the environment is too cold, flexibility, dexterity, and judgement may be impaired and therefore accidents may increase. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has published guidelines for maintaining comfortable and productive work environments. According to ASHRAE, these temperature ranges represent the environmental conditions which 80% of the building occupants consider comfortable. ASHRAE recommends the following temperature and humidity ranges for office work:

Relative Humidity Winter Temperature Range Summer Temperature Range
30% 68.5 - 76.0 F 74.0 - 80.0 F
40% 68.5 - 75.5 F 73.5 - 79.5 F
50% 68.5 - 74.5 F 73.0 - 79.0 F
60% 68.0 - 74.0 F 72.5 - 78.0 F
Note: Relative humidity above 50% is not recommended because it can promote mold growth.


Indoor Air Pollution

An inadequately ventilated office environment or a poorly designed ventilation system can lead to the build up of a variety of indoor air pollutants. Air pollutants can originate within the building or be drawn in from outdoors. Examples of sources that originate outside a building include:
  • pollen, dust and fungal spores
  • general vehicle exhaust
  • odors from dumpsters
  • re-entrained exhaust from the building itself or from neighboring buildings

Examples of sources that originate from within the building include:
  • building components and furnishings
  • smoking
  • maintenance or remodeling activities (painting, etc.)
  • housekeeping activities
  • unsanitary conditions (standing water from clogged drains or dry traps) and water damage
  • emissions from office equipment or special use areas (print shops, laboratories, or food preparation areas)

Controls to Prevent Indoor Air Pollution

The following recommendations and guidelines are useful in preventing indoor air quality problems:
  • HVAC systems should receive periodic cleaning and filters should be changed on a regular basis on all ventilation systems.
  • The ventilation system should introduce an adequate supply of fresh outside air into the office and capture and vent point air pollutant sources to the outside.
  • Office machinery should be operated in well-ventilated areas. Most office machinery does not require local exhaust ventilation in areas that are already provided with 7-10 air changes per hour. Photocopiers should be placed away from workstations. Workers should vary work tasks to avoid using machines excessively.
  • Office equipment should be cleaned/maintained according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Properly maintained equipment will not generate unhealthy levels of pollutants.
  • Special attention should be given to operations that may generate air contaminants (such as painting, pesticide spraying, and heavy cleaning). Provisions for adequate ventilation must be made during these operations or other procedures, such as performing work off-hours or removing employees from the immediate area, utilized.

Evaluation

In order to determine if a possible relationship between any adverse health symptoms and indoor air quality exist, the Industrial Hygiene Section, OHS, will conduct an indoor air quality survey. This survey will consist of an evaluation of potential sources of pollutants, a measurement program that involves selecting appropriate instrumentation and designing the monitoring effort, and, finally, an interpretation of the data gathered. In many situations, the cause of the inadequate indoor air quality can be recognized and certain mitigation measures suggested and/or implemented. To request an indoor air quality investigation, contact the Industrial Hygiene Section, OHS, at 404-639-3112.

Used with permission of Office of Health and Safety,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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