March 30, 2012

Office Air ... Is it healthy??

Air in the officeDave asked Kate if she thought something was wrong with the air in the office. “It’s like smelly socks!” she exclaimed holding her nose. Dave and Kate had just moved to a newly constructed downtown office building and were confronted with foul air. “Let’s call maintenance,” Dave said.

“We found the problem,” Scott, the building engineer replied, “it’s the ventilation system. One of the ventilation ducts wasn’t properly installed resulting in no air movement, but the condensation built up creating stagnant water, perfect for growing a nasty mold. We have completely eliminated the duct, replaced it, and intensely cleaned the entire duct system in the building. We also set up a five-step monitoring system to make sure the air is clean.”

“Are we going to get sick?” Kate asked.

“Very unlikely,” Scott said. “We contacted our occupational physician who investigated the situation. Sometimes people develop an allergic reaction in their lungs from these exposures, but it’s rare, and the problem was discovered early enough before someone developed the reaction.”

“That’s good,” Dave said. “Sounds like we can return to work breathing clean air.”

How do you manage your health at the workplace? It’s just like managing life. Use the five vital steps. First, learn everything you can about the situation. Second, understand the evaluation process. Third, know your solution options. Fourth, monitor the situation. Fifth, create a healing environment.

Take care of your body and mind outside of the workplace. If you have any chronic disorders such as hypertension, diabetes or asthma, learn everything you can about them, understand the diagnostic process, know the treatment options and monitor them. Importantly, create a healing environment at home and at work – exercise, nutrition and a good sleep hygiene program; and use the mind – visualize, compassion and controlled breathing. Eating at work should consist of eating high quality foods with low saturated fats, low sodium (salt), low sugar, small portions, and eat sitting down during a break. If you work in an office, get up and walk around at least once an hour and stretch – it’s good for the hip flexor group of muscles. Manage colds and flu by washing your hands and not touching your face.
Manage your environment at the workplace. Dave and Kate did the right thing, they contacted the maintenance department. There’s a term “sick building” syndrome that is used to describe unhealthy indoor air quality. Buildings are classified as healthy, average or poor – about one- third of the buildings fall into each of the categories, meaning that one-third of the buildings have poor indoor air quality.

There are five things that can be monitored to manage indoor air quality. That monitoring system set up by Scott is helpful. Here’s what it’s about. Temperature is the first component. It should remain at a constant, comfortable range. Humidity is the second component. The humidity in the room should be at a comfortable mid-range. Low humidity may cause excessive dryness, which can irritate your nose and throat, and may cause you to cough. The term “New England catarrh” was used for decades for the cough that occurred during the region’s winter months because of people breathing dry, inside air. If the humidity is too high, it’s uncomfortable, especially for people with asthma or emphysema. Insufficient management of temperature and humidity is the major reason that buildings are classified in the poor category.

The other three components require complex equipment. They are carbon-dioxide level, particulate level, and the number of room air exchanges per hour. If the carbon-dioxide level is high, it probably means there are too many people in the room and not enough circulating fresh air. The air in the room or the office should be replaced four to five times every hour, which is referred to as the room-air-exchange rate. If it’s too low, the air is stale and the carbon-dioxide levels may be high. If it’s too high, the room will be like a wind tunnel. Particulates are small particles in the air. The level of particulates reflects the amount of dust in the air. The particles are counted with a microscope. The causes of a high particulate level include an insufficient number of room air exchanges or the air filters are clogged. High particulate levels may cause discomfort and sometimes chest tightness in people with asthma. All five of these measures can be maintained at healthy levels with preventive management and system maintenance.

Finally, there are types of work that require special health management. Managing the mind is important in all settings. Managing the air quality is helpful in an office or retail setting. In an industrial setting, the most important part of managing health is knowing your exposures. Learn about the chemicals, dusts or fumes. What are their names? Are they hazardous? Be sure to ask for the material safety data sheets (MSDS) – they have all the information, review them and check the internet for more details. Know the best options for managing these exposures. Monitor the exposures. You’re the boss – you can manage your health at the workplace.

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