Some of the factors that contribute to poor indoor air quality may originate from inadequate HVAC design. Some may be solely in the control of the building management, such as maintenance of the HVAC system and the amount of outside air being mechanically brought into the building. Others are largely in the control of building tenants and occupants, such as materials used in renovations and products and furnishings brought into or used in the building by occupants. Some, like cleanliness and general housekeeping of the building, require the cooperation of both the building management as well as all of the individuals who work in the building. For these reasons, indoor air quality is a shared responsibility.
Good indoor air quality management practices can make a big difference. However, some factors, like reactions to indoor air contaminants among highly susceptible individuals, or the quality of the outside air, may not be within anyone's immediate control. It is also important to remember that any building, no matter how well operated, may experience periods of unacceptable indoor air quality due to equipment breakdown, inadequate maintenance, or in some cases, the actions of building occupants.
It is also important to keep in mind that many perceived indoor air quality problems are often comfort problems, such as temperature, humidity, or air movement in the space being too low or too high. In addition, many symptoms, such as headaches, can have causes that are not related to factors in the building.
The Good News...
Even though the factors that affect the quality of the indoor environment are numerous, the good news is that most indoor environmental problems can be prevented or corrected easily and inexpensively through the application of common sense and vigilance on the part of everyone in the building. Success depends on cooperative actions taken by building management and occupants to improve and maintain indoor air quality. By becoming knowledgeable about indoor air quality, tenants and occupants are in a good position to help building managers maintain a comfortable and healthy building environment. Work with management any time you:
- Identify or suspect an indoor air problem
- Need cleaning and maintenance service
- Plan to install new office equipment
- Plan for renovations and/or remodeling with a professional interior designer and/or an architect
- Experience leaks, spills, or accidents
Things Everyone in the Building Can Do
All of the occupants of a building can have a great influence on indoor air quality. Everyday activities like heating food in a microwave and using the photocopier can generate odors and pollutants. By being aware of indoor air issues, occupants can help prevent problems. Here are some things you can do:
Do not block air vents or grilles. Keep supply vents or return air grilles unblocked, so you won't unbalance the HVAC system or affect the ventilation of a neighboring office. Furniture, boxes or other materials near supply vents or return air grilles may also affect air flow. Follow your office's procedures to notify building management if your space is too hot, too cold, stuffy or drafty.
Comply with the office and building smoking policy. Smoke in designated areas only.
Clean up all water spills promptly, water and maintain office plants properly and report water leaks right away. Water creates a hospitable environment for the growth of microorganisms such as molds or fungi. Some of these microbes, if they become airborne, can cause health problems.
Dispose of garbage promptly and properly. Dispose of garbage in appropriate containers that are emptied daily to prevent odors and biological contamination.
Store food properly. Food attracts pests. Some foods, if left unrefrigerated, can spoil and generate unpleasant odors. Never store perishable food products in your desk or on shelves. Refrigerators should be cleaned on a regular basis to prevent odors. Keep kitchens and dining areas clean and sanitize as necessary to prevent pests and maintain hygiene.
Notify your building or facility manager immediately if you suspect an IAQ problem. This helps management determine the cause of the problem quickly so that a timely solution can be reached.
What the Office Manager/Tenant Can Do
In leased space, the office manager or other person responsible for office policies and/or relations with the property owner is often in a position to directly and significantly impact indoor air quality in the space. For some businesses, responsibility for dealing with air quality issues may involve more than one person. The office manager should follow the business's internal procedures in dealing with the building management. Some of the things this person can do to improve indoor air quality include:
Maintain a good working relationship with building management on indoor environmental issues. Cooperative efforts are the best way to solve many indoor air quality problems. Follow your internal guidelines to ensure that building facility management is informed of, and involved in, all indoor air quality issues. Be as knowledgeable as possible when dealing with building management on indoor air issues.
Place office furniture, partitions, and equipment with air circulation, temperature control, and pollutant removal functions of the HVAC system in mind. Make sure air supply vents and return grilles are not blocked by furniture or equipment. Computers and other heatproducing equipment placed near or under an HVAC sensor device system can trigger cooling, even if the actual temperature for occupants is cool. Place such equipment away from HVAC sensors to avoid this kind of situation.
Coordinate with building management in instances when responsibility for design, operation, and maintenance of the HVAC system is shared. Sometimes the portion of the HVAC system servicing a leased space is the responsibility of the tenant. In such cases, work closely with building management to ensure that all parts of the building are receiving optimal service from the system. Ensure that filters in window air conditioners and perimeter heating and cooling units are changed frequently.
Establish an effective smoking policy. Most of us today are aware of the health risks of smoking, not only to smokers, but to those who are exposed to secondhand smoke. In addition, environmental tobacco smoke in a building can increase costs for maintaining the ventilation system and for cleaning and replacing smoke-soiled furnishings and materials. Establish a smoke-free policy in the space under your control or work with building management to design properly ventilated smoking rooms that don't allow smoke to circulate through the central ventilation system or to adjoining spaces.
Avoid procedures and products that can cause problems. Many common products used in offices, like solvents, adhesives, cleaners, and pesticides can give off pollutants and odors, as can office equipment such as copiers, printers, and fax machines. If any of these items are used in the office environment, adequate and sometimes separate ventilation should be provided. If your organization engages in activities that may generate pollutants, such as photographic or printing processes, exhaust ventilation will be especially important. Pollutants and odors (which may or may not indicate a health concern) generated in your space may not only bother those in the immediate area, but may enter the building ventilation system and cause problems for other tenants in other parts of the building.
Integrate indoor air quality concerns into your purchasing decisions. Take steps to reduce exposures to contaminants from cleaning products, and from new furnishings and building materials, when odors and chemical emissions are usually highest. Ask the designers, suppliers, and manufacturers to provide information on chemical emissions from products and any potential associated respiratory hazards. While emissions information may not yet be available for many products, many product manufacturers are starting to do emissions testing. The more consumers request such information, the sooner it will become widely available.
Work with the building owner or manager to ensure use of only necessary and appropriate pest control practices, and non-chemical methods where possible. Pesticides can contribute to poor indoor air quality and can cause serious health effects when used improperly. Unacceptable levels of pest activity and damage should be prevented by the most economical means and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment. For example, if roaches are a problem, seal their entry points and properly store and dispose of food as part of a long term control strategy. If a chemical pesticide is selected, it should be used in strict accordance with label directions. To reduce airborne exposure to pesticides, consider using baits to kill pests instead of spraying. Work with building management to select the most appropriate pesticide to achieve your purpose, and do not purchase or use more than needed.
Work with building management and contractors before you conduct remodeling or renovation activities to identify ways of keeping exposure to pollutants to a minimum. Properly isolating the area to be remodeled or renovated from other spaces and the HVAC systems, and scheduling these activities for evenings and weekends if possible, can go a long way toward minimizing potential occupant problems. If the renovation work is contracted through you, ensure that the architect or interior designer and contractor are made aware, in advance, of the practices and procedures to be used during construction activities. If possible, try to arrange for plastic wrappings to be removed from partitions, carpet rolls, and other new materials before they are brought into the space. Ask to have the materials aired out in a clean, dry location outside the building for a few days before installation. This can significantly reduce chemical emissions and odors inside the building.
Encourage building management to obtain and use the joint EPA/NIOSH guidance document entitled: Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers. EPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have published comprehensive guidance for building owners and managers to help them prevent and solve indoor air quality problems. Ensuring that your building management is knowledgeable about and committed to management of indoor air quality issues is an essential first step in preventing and fixing indoor air problems.
What Building Facility Managers Can Do to Promote Good Indoor Air Quality
As an occupant of an office building, understanding the role of the building management in maintaining a healthy and comfortable indoor environment is an important step in understanding how you can fit into the picture. EPA and NIOSH recommend that every building manager obtain and use the Building Air Quality guidance to:
Designate an Indoor Air Quality Representative, who serves as the contact for indoor environment issues. The IAQ representative should be accountable for the quality of the indoor environment and should have the authority, knowledge, and training to oversee or carry out the following steps in a good indoor air quality management plan:
Assess the current condition of the indoor air in the building by:
- identifying and reviewing records pertaining to the HVAC design and operation
- developing an indoor air profile of the building, identifying potential pollutant sources, if feasible
Address any existing and potential indoor air quality problems.
Educate building staff about indoor air quality management by:
- providing training opportunities
- establishing clear pollutant source management policies
Operate and maintain the building and ventilation system for good indoor air by:
- establishing or reinforcing standard operating and maintenance procedures
- responding quickly to leaks, floods, and other accidents that occur in buildings to prevent indoor air quality problems from developing
Manage potential pollutant sources such as:
- remodeling and renovation materials and furnishings
- housekeeping and pest control products
- exhaust fumes from loading docks or garages
Communicate with tenants and occupants about their roles in maintaining good indoor air quality.
Establish clear procedures for responding to indoor air-related complaints.
Keep a record of reported health complaints to aid in solving indoor air-related problems. This will help improve the chances of correctly diagnosing and then fixing problems, especially if a pattern in complaints can be detected.