Air quality is an important topic to think about on this World Earth Day. When we think about air pollution, we’re usually focused on the air outside. However, the air indoors is often more polluted than outdoors.
People spend nearly 90% of their time inside buildings, and, according to the World Green Building Council (WGBC), 91% of the global population worldwide breathes unsafe air. This article will examine the impact of indoor air quality on planetary health, human wellbeing, and employee performance. We’ll also discuss how employers can take charge of indoor air quality in the workplace, sustainability initiatives, and the benefits of using environmental sensors.
“How we design, build, operate, and maintain our buildings directly impacts both the environment and our health and wellbeing.”
-World Green Building Council, Beyond Buildings report
Buildings drive a large share of climate change
The built environment continues to be a critical aspect of efforts to address climate change. In its report “Beyond Buildings,” WGBC argues climate actions must focus on buildings for these reasons:
- Buildings account for 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- 35% of global energy gets consumed by buildings.
- Operating buildings uses up 55% of global electricity.
The impact of air quality on health extends beyond COVID-19
Although the pandemic led to a surge in conversations about indoor air quality and sanitation, the importance of air quality goes well beyond COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 700,000 people die every year from poor breathing conditions. Poor air quality exacerbates asthma, allows viruses to spread, and can contribute to reproductive and neurological disorders.
“The buildings we occupy comprise the very fabric of our society. Health, equity and quality of life cannot be improved without tackling every aspect of the built environment that shapes and situates people’s lives.”
-World Green Building Council
Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) affects employee performance
Indoor air quality in the workplace has many benefits for employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. It also has proved impacts on performance. Berkeley Lab maintains the Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank that compiles the best research findings about air quality. Among their findings are studies showing that “office buildings with above-average ventilation rates up to 40 cfm (20 L/s) per person have 10% to 80% fewer sick building syndrome (SBS) symptoms at work.” SBS symptoms can include irritation of eyes, nose, and throat, headache, fatigue, cough, and trouble concentrating. It’s easy to imagine why employees with these symptoms would experience decreased productivity.
“Doubling the ventilation rate costs less than $40 per person per year in all climate zones. However, the same change in ventilation rate can increase the productivity of an employee by $6,500 a year.”
-Joseph G. Allen, DSc, MPH, Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Green buildings help employees think better
According to research conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health, improving workplace indoor air quality can increase employee productivity by up to $6,500 per person per year. Harvard also partnered with Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical University to conduct research into whether working in a “green building” resulted in better cognitive performance than “non-green buildings.” Cognitive performance scores for those working in green environments were significantly higher than those working in conventional buildings. In fact, their cognitive scores were 61% higher than peers, on average, across nine domains of cognitive function! Breaking that down a bit further, workers in green buildings achieved:
- 97% higher scores in crisis response
- 183% higher scores in strategy
- 172% higher scores in information usage
4 ways to improve your workplace’s indoor air quality
- Clean, inspect and replace HVAC filters. Your office HVAC filters should be inspected and cleaned or replaced according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Failure to do so can result in a blocked-up filter that will not remove contaminants and may increase the load on your HVAC. MERV, or Minimum Efficiency Rating Value, is the standard method for classifying air filters. Use the highest MERV rated filter that your HVAC system is designed to support. Using a low MERV filter won’t provide good filtration of the air; however, going higher than the HVAC manufacturer’s specifications can put too much load on your system.
- Increase ventilation. Poor ventilation is associated with degraded human health, leading to more respiratory illness and sick building syndrome symptoms. Most modern air handling systems will allow you to adjust how the air exchange rate—how much fresh outside air comes into the building—also known as “air changes per hour.” The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends between .35 to 1 air changes per hour for homes and 2 to 3 air changes per hour for office environments.
- Manage temperature and humidity. As temperature rises or decreases out of the typical human comfort zone, employee productivity declines. A lot of factors go into finding the right temperature for your office. Women and older employees tend to feel more comfortable at slightly higher temperatures. Men and overweight employees are more comfortable when it is cooler. Helping people choose the right places in the office to work (near windows vs. near HVAC vents) can also be helpful. Humidity should be managed for human performance (comfort) and health (inhibit molds). Optimum humidity levels are between 40% and 60%.
- Help hybrid workers improve IAQ at home. If your business has a hybrid workforce, consider communicating helpful tips to employees about how to improve indoor air quality in their home offices. Include guidance about inspecting and changing HVAC filters, opening windows, monitoring for radon and carbon monoxide, and having the HVAC system serviced regularly.
Monitor and manage IAQ with environmental sensors
Environmental monitoring sensors measure temperature, humidity, light, noise, air pressure, and air quality in the workplace. They are an affordable way to measure the actual IAQ of your building and then tune your environment to maximize employee health and experience. Sensors also provide all of the data needed to make progress toward your organization’s sustainability and green building goals. Combined with occupancy sensors, environmental data will help buildings and facilities professionals identify opportunities to reduce energy consumption (and costs) and eliminate waste while improving employee health.