Even as an increasing number of workers explore flexible arrangements which see them operating from home, on the road and in virtual teams, inevitably businesses still continue to make use of some manner of central working hub or office where the majority of their employees will toil away.
Unfortunately for these work-a-day relics, cooped up like battery hens, this traditional working environment appears to be increasingly associated with higher levels of illness and absenteeism than that experienced by their free-range counterparts.
In the past increased levels of absenteeism were likely shrugged off as presumed ‘sickies’ or the closely-associated malady of ‘Mondayitis’, however in more recent times the prevalence of so-called ‘office illnesses’ has been explored through a number of studies, resulting in the emergence of two distinct groups; Building-Related Diseases and Sick Building Syndrome.
In a nutshell, Building-Related Diseases are clearly identifiable conditions such as colds, reactions caused by specific allergens and other communicable illnesses spread within the office environment. Sick Building Syndrome on the other hand describes an unidentified illness without a traceable origin, albeit with very real and legitimate symptoms which can include headache, fatigue and irritation to the eyes, skin, nose and throat. Critically, the symptoms associated with Sick Building Syndrome appear to dissipate once the individual is removed from the building.
For office and business managers this presents some frustration. On one hand, they can implement good workplace practices and systems to identify and reduce the spread of known illness, while on the other, they are still left questioning whether an employee’s gripe with the air quality is legitimate or simply a case of the emperor’s new clothes.
In instances where air sampling is undertaken, this self-reported poor air quality is often linked to the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC); nasty little airborne particles typically caused by processes involving solvents, paints and chemicals. So how did these get into the office? Common sources include poorly maintained air conditioners, vehicle exhaust entering via the building’s carpark, the use of toxic cleaning chemicals and people walking substances in on their shoes.
1. Door mats: Yes, door mats. Door mats not only reduce slip hazards, they also do an excellent job of trapping and holding walked-in chemicals and allergens. Strategically placing these and ensuring that they are cleaned, maintained and replaced when needed will help to ensure that nasties from the street don’t make it any further into your work space. Just make sure they are retired before they become too worn, otherwise they will begin releasing everything they’ve trapped over time.
2. HEPA Vacuuming: Make sure that your office is being vacuumed using High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters. These will ensure contaminates are removed by the vacuuming process, not just being moved around. Unlike standard vacuum filters, these are designed to capture 99.97% of all particles larger than 0.3 of a micrometre. This ensures fine particles such as dust, dead skin, pollens and dust mite faeces are trapped and prevented from recirculating into the air. It is critical that the filters are replaced regularly to remain effective. A typical lifespan for a filter is no longer than six months.
3. Non-toxic chemicals: Some commonly used cleaning products such as bleach, descaling acid and heavy degreasers are actually classified as Dangerous Goods when transported, yet are still often splashed around liberally within workplaces. In lieu of these caustic substances which cause the release of toxic gas, employ a biological cleanser which uses enzymes to break down dirt. This doesn’t mean resorting to essential oils and homeopathy – cleaning products certified by Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) are tested for safety, environmental impact and effectiveness. These cleaners will cause far less airborne VOCs and are increasingly becoming the standard for cleaning in many Australian schools.
4. Scheduled maintenance programs: Implementing maintenance schedules for all of your office’s key assets will to help to ensure they are running efficiently, reach their optimum lifespan and are not contributing to poor air quality. In addition to obvious items such as air conditioning units and kitchen equipment, consider planning periodic deep cleans of your flooring and carpet, as well as maintenance for areas missed in your standard week-to-week cleans such as ceilings and windows.
Unfortunately, these solutions are boring, technical and won’t make your office look any cleaner, however they are proven, achievable and will make a difference to the health, wellbeing and absenteeism of your staff.