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5 big reasons why businesses should pay attention to air quality

How clean is the air inside your building? The air you’re breathing in right now? While we hear a lot of talk about the effects of air pollution in our towns and cities, the air quality inside our homes and workplaces isn’t discussed nearly as much.

But that’s starting to change. As levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere reach record levels, we’re gradually becoming more aware of the effects of poor air quality – not just on our environment, but also on human health. The more research findings emerge, the more organisations are starting to take note.

Here are five big reasons why you might want to monitor and improve the air quality inside your place of work.

It’s the law

If you’re an employer, it’s your responsibility to provide a healthy working environment by maintaining a reasonable temperature and meeting minimum air quality standards. Industrial businesses are also required to undertake a risk assessment under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (WHSW), regulation 6, requires that you make sure every enclosed workplace has adequate ventilation and fresh or purified air. Guidance states that the fresh air supply rate to your workplace should not normally fall below 5 to 8 litres per second, per occupant.

The regulations also state that any mechanical ventilation systems are kept clean, well maintained and in good repair. If the system is used to reduce contaminants that would otherwise be harmful, you’ll need an early warning of system failure in the form of a visible or audible alarm.

It can affect occupants’ health and wellbeing

We’ve all experienced what it’s like to be stuck in a crowded, stuffy room. If you’ve ever felt tired, irritable and desperate to open a window or step outside for some fresh air, it’s likely the air inside the building contained a higher-than-average level of CO2.

The Health & Safety Executive explains that fresh air – when dry – is made up of 78.08% nitrogen, 20.94% oxygen, 0.95% inert gases and 0.03% carbon dioxide (that’s 300ppm, or parts per million). The World Health Organisation estimates that we spend up to 90% of our time indoors. So, since we breathe in oxygen and exhale CO2, unless there’s a stream of fresh air entering the building CO2 levels can rise and the air can start to feel stale and stuffy.

As the concentration CO2 in air rises, it can cause headaches, tiredness, confusion, lethargy and dizziness, as well as skin and eye irritation. In extreme cases, it can even lead to loss of consciousness.

It can impact productivity

Obviously this is secondary to the health and wellbeing of your employees. But if people are feeling under the weather they’re obviously not going to be able to perform their roles as well.

There’s plenty of evidence to back this up. In the US, studies conducted in a simulated office environment found that indoor levels of CO2 within the range of 600 to 5000ppm can impair cognitive function.

And there’s great concern over how CO2 levels in schools might affect academic performance, too. A 2015 study tested student’s ability to solve five-letter anagram word puzzles under both low and elevated CO2 levels. It found that those in the elevated CO2 group had almost twice as many errors as those in the low exposure group.

It affects every type of workplace

It’s true that industrial workplaces are likely to feature more harmful fumes and pollutants than your average office. But they also face tighter regulations, plus the need to carry out risk assessments. Conversely, those in charge of office, retail or leisure spaces may have little idea of the effects or poor ventilation.

The HSE recommends you consider several factors to determine the amount of ventilation needed, including the amount of floor space per occupant, the type of activity carried out and whether there are any other sources of airborne contamination. Sources of the latter can include carpets, furniture, cleaning products, heaters, photocopiers, the building itself, the ventilation ducting, and pollution entering the building from outside.

It’s a bigger problem than ever

Rising CO2 and climate change are rarely out of the headlines. But there’s another reason why air quality is a very modern problem, and ironically it’s all down to how efficient our homes and buildings have become.

The World Health Organisation has reported that up to 30% of new and remodelled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality. It’s all because, for years, we’ve been focused on how to make buildings more energy efficient – more airtight, with fewer draughts. The trade off is reduced ventilation and, in some cases, poorer air quality.

There’s lots of things you can do to make sure you have effective ventilation in your workplace, from roof vents to trickle ventilators in window frames, extractor fans to mechanical ventilation.

But first, you might want to know more about CO2 levels in your buildings. Environmental monitoring sensors detect the amount of CO2 in a room, allowing you to automate control of ventilation and air conditioning systems and limit their use to when it’s absolutely necessary.

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