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Everything you need to know about sick building syndrome

What is Sick Building Syndrome? 

Sick Building Syndrome is a term used to describe the factors of a working environment, typically an office space, which can cause physical and mental ailments among staff. Physical symptoms among staff can vary from minor irritations such as headaches or stiffness, up to more serious medical conditions including skin or lung ailments which can lead or contribute to severe medical problems. 

Mental health can also be affected by Sick Building Syndrome, with consequences ranging from poor morale and lethargy to increased stress in the workplace, depression, anxiety and more. 

Why does Sick Building Syndrome matter?

Workplace morale is one of the most immediate and noticeable effects of Sick Building Syndrome, which can have wide-ranging effects on individuals’ performance. Traits such as lateral thinking, pragmatism and collaboration can be severely affected by morale. Sick Building Syndrome can leave staff feeling lethargic or less motivated, with obvious repercussions on productivity. 

The increased irritability and anxiety of staff working in such an environment also reduces collaborative working, potentially increasing duplication of effort and reducing the free flow of ideas. 

These ailments and their symptoms can have quantifiable effects on productivity, working hours, sick leave and more. Studies have concluded that approximately 23% of office workers report symptoms of sick building syndrome[1]. 

Sick Building Syndrome is not just about workers feeling more comfortable, it is a measurable and quantifiable problem, and a cost. A study of 3720 office workers across 40 independent buildings revealed that the buildings/floors with lower concentrations of CO2 had an adjusted absence rate 35% lower than the poorly ventilated buildings[2]. That represents a lot of time, and a lot of productivity sacrificed. 

What causes Sick Building Syndrome?

The causes of Sick Building Syndrome are not completely understood, but research and experimentation reveal some contributing factors. 

  • A multi-year study conducted by the U.S. Military found that clinically confirmed rates of acute respiratory illness were 50% higher among recruits housed in barracks with low air circulation and high CO2 concentrations [3]. 
  • A study of schools in New York found that absence from illness was 18% higher in classrooms with poor ventilation, resulting in excessive CO2 and particulate matter [4]. 
  • A study conducted in Houston Jail revealed that prisoners got sick up to 95% more in cells with a higher measured CO2 concentration [5]. 
  • A study of office workers found that increased air dust (particulate matter) was clearly linked to the prevalence of respiratory symptoms [6].

There are also associations with more intangible factors, such as remuneration or job satisfaction, and company morale based on commercial performance but when considering these factors, it is not the building which is sick, as such, and these factors can vary wildly between employers or industries, so they are more difficult to quantify objectively. 

Is my building sick? 

Sick Building Syndrome can be difficult to diagnose. Recognised symptoms include: 

  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Skin rashes
  • Dry or itchy eyes, nose and throat
  • Headaches
  • Lethargy, irritability or poor concentration
  • Stuffy or runny nose

Most commonly, Sick Building Syndrome is diagnosed by asking staff for their opinions on their working environment and whether they have suffered any associated symptoms. It is not difficult to see how easily this sort of study could be tainted by other factors such as general job satisfaction or the condition of a particular area of the building. 

A more objective view of the conditions within a building can be obtained using Pressac sensors. The Pressac Indoor Air Quality sensor measures CO2 concentration (one of the factors most associated with Sick Building Syndrome), Particulate Matter (another contributing factor of SBS, and a known cause of increased allergic reactions and asthma symptoms), temperature, and humidity. It also measures Volatile Organic Compounds.

The Pressac Room Condition Sensor measures more comfort-related factors, including ambient light and sound level, as well as temperature and humidity. 

Before solving a problem, you need to know how bad the problem is. 

Can it be fixed? How much will it cost?

This is the $64,000 question, but hopefully a lot less than that. 

Ventilation, temperature and humidity control and cleaning services are expensive. The more air you exchange with the outside world, the more you have to heat that air in winter, or cool it in summer. Even just moving the air around can use a lot of energy, and energy is more expensive than ever. 

So while the simple solution to air quality is to just max out the ventilation in your buildings, after a certain point you are exchanging clean air for clean air and vacuuming clean floors. Beyond that point, you can use more energy without achieving any beneficial effect. It is strange to think of an air quality monitor being a cost-saving device, but if you can reduce the energy required to maintain the air quality with no detrimental effect on the environment, it’s a relatively easy saving. 

All the suspected causes of Sick Building Syndrome can be solved – HVAC, air filters, more frequent vacuuming, humidifiers/dehumidifiers. The complex part is first identifying which problems affect your building and which measures will provide the greatest benefit for the lowest cost. This is where sensors come in. 

If you suspect that you are suffering the effects of Sick Building Syndrome, you could increase the ventilation and see what happens. It might take months to analyse what has changed, and you will never be certain of the causes of any changes. If productivity increases or absence decreases, it might be because of the air quality improvements, or it could be an unrelated factor – a particularly successful commercial year, or an outbreak like Covid, or just the changing seasons. 

With Pressac Air Quality sensors, you know almost immediately where the problems lie, and then see almost immediately what effect any changes have had. You might find that you can reduce your HVAC energy bill by 20% without changing the conditions in the building, a free and significant saving in most buildings. Or you might find that increasing the temperature, the air flow and the removal of dust improves productivity to a measurable degree, giving you a net gain from the improvements made, while also providing less tangible benefits to morale, staff retention and reputation. 

 

References: 

1 – obtained in conversation, HS Brightman, Harvard School of Health. Referenced in “Health and Productivity Gains from Better Indoor Environments and Their Implications for the U.S. Department of Energy, William J Fisk, 2000. 

2 – Milton et al. 2000 

3 – Brundage et al. 1988 

4 – New York State Commission on Ventilation, 1923 (updated) 

5 – Hoge et al. 1994 

6 – Johnson et al. 1995 

chris-green

Chris Green

A customer-facing Technical Support Engineer, passionate about delivering innovative solutions to complex problems through the use of IoT. With nearly two decades of experience in the electronics industry, Chris has developed a customer-first approach and his product expertise, combined with his sense of humour makes him a well-respected authority on intelligent workplaces.

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