by David Ableman, Protek Corp. — “The average desktop has 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat,”1 and chairs are often worse than desktops.
Dust mites are responsible for about 25 percent of all allergy diseases and a factor in 50 to 80 percent of asthmatic cases, as well as in countless cases of eczema, hay fever and other allergic ailments.2 Moreover, “dust mites may be the most common cause of year-round allergy and asthma,”3 which “is one of [the U.S.’] most common chronic health conditions.”4
Sick building syndrome
Poorly understood and most often unrecognized, sick building syndrome (SBS) costs companies millions every year through employee absenteeism, decreased productivity and even increased health care premiums. In addition, some costs are less apparent, at least initially, because they stem from the emotional impacts of SBS which often create exaggerated responses.
THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT MORE FACILITY MANAGERS ARE BECOMING AWARE OF SICK BUILDING SYNDROME
Whether or not the actual problem is severe, disclosure and perception may cause unjustified claims of serious and persistent health effects. Consider that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one of four new or renovated indoor buildings in the U.S. may be classified as “sick buildings.” Moreover, with the increasing trend toward collaborative environments, SBS is becoming a bigger concern because most cases of SBS occur in open-plan offices.
At a high level, the causes are frequently attributed to pathogens (e.g., viruses, bacteria or fungi) or ventilation-, humidity- and temperature-related issues. A bigger problem is that SBS is especially prevalent in newer, energy-efficient buildings in which windows are sealed shut and fresh air is scarce. Some research now suggests that SBS may even be caused by tiny amounts of chemicals escaping from paints, cleaning agents, carpets, photocopiers, office supplies and other sources that combine to make the air hazardous.
Symptoms may include:
- Eye, throat or skin irritation
- Headache, dizziness or nausea
- Irritated, blocked or runny nose
- Poor concentration or fatigue
- Respiratory illnesses including shortness of breath
In some cases, the symptoms are so severe that those affected can no longer work at the building in question. Most often, though, no single cause can be identified. Still, many facility managers are only focused on the obvious air-quality control solutions (although cleaning ductwork is frequently neglected for longer periods than recommended).
On the other hand, some of the real problems and potential root causes are overlooked, which should at least be tackled by leveraging some basic and cost-effective cleaning and preventative maintenance programs. For example, while many janitorial companies do a good job cleaning floors, bathrooms and kitchenettes, their processes don’t always sanitize. Worse, many workspace surfaces are overlooked, such as desks, conference room tables and chairs.
An ounce of prevention
Facility managers can follow a few simple steps to avoid or mitigate the development of SBS:
- Ensure all ventilation, humidity and temperature controls are properly functioning and that system maintenance schedules are precisely followed and recorded. In particular, check to ensure all vent grills are not blocked and that all ductwork, including humidifiers, dehumidifiers and cooling towers, is regularly cleaned. Furthermore, if your building doesn’t already deploy automated software tools that track these environmental impacts and automatically trigger alerts as appropriate, consider acquiring some.
- Establish routines that monitor the cleanliness of your building(s). Be sure to spot-check the janitorial staff and their equipment to ensure their processes sanitize all the surfaces they clean. Evaluate whether or not cleaning supplies are properly used and stored. In addition, check that vacuum cleaners are up to code (vacuums with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are best), regularly emptied and have clean filters.
- Schedule preventative maintenance for all furnishings. Unfortunately, furnishings are ideal breeding places for disease-carrying pathogens including bacteria, viruses and dust mites. Curiously, many facility managers don’t have standard procedures in place that regularly sanitize these commonly touched surfaces. Though often overlooked, furnishings (especially woods, leathers and upholstery) need to be deep cleaned, sanitized and preserved, not just wiped, dusted or vacuumed. Proven to improve the triple bottom line of profits, people and planet, onsite refurbishment is becoming recognized as a best practice.
- Ensure that human resource (HR) policies and procedures include the requirement to notify the facility management team regarding any unusual employee symptoms or environmental concerns. If there are credible reports of symptoms, a survey should be arranged immediately to avoid employee discussion, which can distort the findings. Also, though reactive, a final approach may be to simply monitor HR metrics regarding absenteeism. By comparing historical same-time-of-year data, especially if it can be monitored on a department-by-department basis (or better yet, floor-by-floor), the facility management team could head off a calamity.
Advice for employees
In addition, facility occupants should be encouraged to:
- Comply with smoking policies. Smokers should only smoke outside and far away from the fresh air intake ducts.
- Maintain healthy plants. Over-watered plants can develop mold, and dusty, dying plants don’t help air quality.
- Keep eating areas clean. Along with dust mites, pests such as cockroaches have been linked to respiratory problems because proteins in their droppings and saliva can cause allergic reactions or trigger asthma symptoms.
AND ARE MONITORING AND MAINTAINING SYSTEMS AND FACILITIES MORE PROACTIVELY.
Costs of sick building syndrome
The primary costs of sick building syndrome are initially identified and monetized by decreases in productivity, first caused first by absenteeism, and worsened by a loss of employee morale.
Consider that one landmark study of 6,000 office buildings throughout the United States during a five-year period showed that people costs outweighed facility costs by a ratio of 13:1 for owner-occupied buildings.5 More recently, salaries were shown to comprise 85 percent of the total costs, compared with only 8.5 percent for furnishing, maintaining and operating a facility. Therefore, senior management acknowledges that even small improvements in office worker productivity derived from facility management projects are clearly worthwhile.6
Additional costs are associated with identifying and mitigating the problems, along with lingering negative customer and stakeholder reactions.
Increase in productivity and revenues
Conversely, if treated as part of a preventative maintenance program, the potential bottom-line losses noted above can be alleviated, and demonstrable benefits are likely to impact the top line.
Studies have proven that appearances and “dressing for success” impact productivity.7 Similarly, “scientific research has firmly established that the office environment can influence people’s health, wellbeing and productivity,”8 with studies showing that keeping an office looking good increases employee productivity.9 The National Institute of Building Sciences recommends facility managers “assure a visually appealing environment.” Moreover, the appearance of an office workspace can be the difference between clinching deals and losing clients.
“Scientific research has indicated that improving the working environment results in a reduction in the number of complaints and absenteeism and an increase in productivity.” An obvious example is decreasing the spread of diseases (by decreasing bacterial growth), such as sick building syndrome, which could otherwise have a devastating impact.10 “When office workers are satisfied with their environmental conditions, when they can work in greater comfort and control, they will be more productive. Additionally, the cost of employment per worker will drop, and the cost of facility operations will decrease.”11
The good news
The good news is that more facility managers are becoming aware of sick building syndrome and are monitoring and maintaining systems and facilities more proactively. In addition, facility managers are taking more advantage of specialized onsite services that not only sanitize surfaces but can enhance environments by beautifying and preserving the lifetime value of furnishings (which also promotes sustainability).
By remaining diligent and proactive, facility managers can help improve the top line while decreasing losses to the bottom line by reducing absenteeism and the impacts of sick building syndrome.
- Dr. Chuck Gerba, Professor of Microbiology, University of Arizona.
- ISRN Allergy, Volume 2011 (2011), Article ID 576849.
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
- Michael Brill, et al, and the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (BOSTI) (1985): “Using Office Design to Increase Productivity.”
- British Council for Offices (2004): “The impact of office design on business performance.”
- Lydia Dishman (2014): “The Surprising Productivity Secrets Hidden in Your Clothes.”
- J. Sullivan (2013): “Measuring Productivity in the Office Workplace, Edition 2,” Centre for Building Performance Research.
- Debra Brinegar Lister, Elisabeth M. Jenicek, Paul Frederick Preissner (1998): “Productivity and Indoor Environmental Conditions Research: An Annotated Bibliography for Facility Engineers,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
- Roelofsen, P. (2002): “The impact of office environments on employee performance: The design of the workplace as a strategy for productivity enhancement.”
- Carol Lomonaco and Dennis Miller, Johnson Controls, Inc. (2005) “White Paper: Environmental Satisfaction, Personal Control and the Positive Correlation to Increased Productivity.”
David Ableman is vice president of operations for PROTEK, a company specializing in onsite refurbishment, founded in 1963, and headquartered in Randolph, Massachusetts (www.protekcorporation.com). He oversees an experienced team which has completed thousands of projects throughout the U.S. Northeast. Charged with managing quality control and customer expectations, Ableman is responsible for day-to-day operations, process improvement and onsite, overnight deliverables.
Ableman received a bachelor of science in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 1982 and subsequently attended Babson College for an MBA. A member of IFMA with more than 30 years of professional experience, he is an award-winning and respected consultant, speaker, trainer and author.