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Sick Buildings = Sick Workforce

A new study in the use of ultraviolet radiation in office ventilation systems could cut the sickness suffered by millions of office workers worldwide by 20 per cent.

While specific causes of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) remain unknown, it is thought that poor air conditioning systems and low quality lighting are the frequent causes. SBS was recognised as a medical condition in the 1980s by the World Health Organisation. Symptoms can include headaches, nausea, fatigue, allergic reactions and a difficulty in concentrating. These symptoms increase in strength with prolonged exposure inside the building yet are seen to rapidly decrease when outside.

McGill University in Montreal, Canada studied the effects of SBS and found that by installing UV Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) lamps in the air-conditioning systems of three office blocks in Montreal it cut all such symptoms by 20 per cent.

In workers reporting symptoms, the activation of the UVGI lamps also slashed respiratory symptoms by 40 per cent, and mucosal symptoms by 30 per cent. These effects were greatest in people with known allergies and in workers who had never smoked. Muscular complaints were halved in people who have never smoked.

Other associated causes of SBS have thought to include the slow release of chemicals into the air from a variety of objects and materials. With glues and adhesives, foam padding in chairs, photocopiers and cleaning chemicals all releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can have an effect on health if they reach higher enough levels in the air. Outdoor chemicals entering into the ventilation system from a poorly located source can also contribute along with fluctuating temperatures and humidity.

Roy Anderson an infectious disease expert at London's Imperial College was cautious over the new study saying "You've got multiple methods of transmission and for control, you need to address all of them."

Commenting on the research by McGill University into SBS a CIOB spokesman said, "SBS is a very real problem that challenges many sectors of construction. From the initial design and build spectrum through to those who work in facilities management and maintenance. We welcome all research and innovative techniques that can raise awareness and help us improve working conditions for all those people employed in offices."

The CIOB gives practical advice on measures that may reduce the problem, these include:

  • Providing specific exhaust vents for areas like copy rooms and printing facilities - VOCs can accumulate in such places.
  • Architects and designers should take into account the needs of workers when designing buildings, with good air conditioning and quality lighting.
  • Increasing the levels of cleaning can also make a difference. Although, this may also lead to an increase in the amount of cleaning chemicals used.
  • Revisiting ideas of open plan offices is also important. The World Health Organisation recommends no more than 10 workstations in any room and this is standard practice in most North European countries.
  • The nature of SBS means that there is not one particular cause, and therefore no simple single solution. Management must therefore monitor the office environment and sickness records to ensure that any solutions they come up with are working.
  • Regulated and consistent temperatures need to be maintained.

Source: CIOB

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