HR Management

Indoor Air Quality and Worker Health

Many organizations have wellness programs aimed at getting their employees healthy. But what about the air at work? Today we are going to take a detailed look at how indoor air quality is regulated.

Air quality coughing

AaronAmat / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

The federal government has long recognized that the quality of indoor air is a prime factor in human health and illness. For example, in the 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, Congress directed the EPA to coordinate with federal, state, and local governments and the private sector to conduct research on the environmental and human health risks associated with poor indoor air quality (IAQ) and determine what the federal government could do to mitigate these risks. The EPA responded with a multivolume report to Congress.

A critical corollary to how IAQ is affecting the health of the general population is its effects on the health and performance of employees. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) decided to address the issue in 1994 when it proposed standards for IAQ in indoor work environments.

“The basis for this proposed action is a preliminary determination that employees working in indoor work environments face a significant risk of material impairment to their health due to poor indoor air quality, and that compliance with the provisions proposed in this notice will substantially reduce that risk,” OSHA stated.

The proposal was comprehensive for all nonindustrial work environments. Affected employers would have been required to develop a written IAQ compliance plan and implement that plan through actions such as inspection and maintenance of building systems that influence IAQ. In addition, the proposal directed employers to implement controls for specific contaminants and their sources, such as outdoor air, microbial contamination, maintenance and cleaning chemicals, pesticides, and other hazardous chemicals within indoor work environments. Employers would have been required to restrict smoking to separate, enclosed rooms equipped with exhaust systems that directed air outside. Provisions were also proposed to limit the degradation of IAQ during renovation, remodeling, and similar activities. Provisions for training of building system maintenance and operations workers and other employees within the facility were included. Employers would have been required to maintain records of inspections, maintenance, and employee complaints about building-related illness.

Tobacco Lobby Succeeds

The proposal languished for years and was eventually withdrawn by OSHA (December 17, 2001, Federal Register (FR)). The reason OSHA gave for withdrawal was not extensive.

“In the years since the proposal was issued, a great many state and local governments and private employers have taken action to curtail smoking in public areas and in workplaces,” OSHA stated. “In addition, the portion of the proposal not related to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) received little attention during the rulemaking proceedings, and much of that consisted of commenters calling into question significant portions of the proposal. As a result, record evidence supporting the non-ETS portion of the proposal is sparse.”

VichienPetchmai / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

The proposal was opposed by the tobacco industry, which mounted a sophisticated campaign to prevent issuance of a final standard. In “Tobacco Industry Efforts to Defeat the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Indoor Air Quality Rule,” Katherine Bryan-Jones and Lisa A. Bero wrote that the industry had five strategies: Maintain scientific debate about the basis of the rule; delay deliberation on the rule; redefine the scope of the rule; recruit and assist labor and business organizations in opposing the rule; and increase media coverage of the tobacco industry position.

“The tobacco industry successfully implemented all five strategies,” wrote Bryan-Jones and Bero.

More Research Needed

While there is little remaining debate about the harmful effects of second-hand tobacco smoke, the tobacco industry was not off base when it indicated the need for more research into the scientific basis for the proposal regarding both indoor tobacco smoke and other indoor air contaminants. The absence of hard evidence regarding some aspects of IAQ on worker health has been noted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

“While research has shown that some respiratory symptoms and illnesses can be associated with damp buildings, it is still unclear which measurements of indoor contaminants show that workers are at risk for disease,” states NIOSH. “In most instances where a worker and his or her physician suspect that the building environment is causing a specific health condition, the information available from medical tests and tests of the environment is not sufficient to establish which contaminants are responsible. Despite uncertainty about what to measure and how to interpret what is measured, research shows that building-related symptoms are associated with building characteristics, including dampness, cleanliness, and ventilation characteristics.”

Some OSHA Standards Apply

Absent a central federal standard to control IAQ hazards, we are left with a mosaic of related federal standards, regulations issued by several states, and many documents intended to guide employers on monitoring IAQ and correcting conditions that negatively affect employee health and performance. For example, OSHA has promulgated occupational exposure limits for contaminants in respirable air in indoor workplaces. The Agency also requires that employers provide ventilation in specific enclosed environments (e.g., tunnels) or in workplaces where certain activities occur (e.g., welding). Furthermore, the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act’s General Duty Clause (GDC) requires that employers provide employment and a place of employment that are free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. The GDC can be applied to poor IAQ, but building a case that makes a legally defensible connection between air quality and a specific occurrence of illness is difficult.

California state flag

YangYin / E+ / Getty Images

California and New Jersey Standards

Although federal OSHA has not issued a regulation, California and New Jersey have regulatory programs intended to mitigate IAQ hazards. In California, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health is required by law to investigate all complaints or referrals alleging that IAQ is injurious to the health of building occupants or employees or a report of a fatality, serious injury or illness, or serious exposure involving workplace IAQ. Any employer found to have inadequate procedures to maintain IAQ must establish, implement, and maintain an effective injury and illness prevention program with respect to IAQ hazards.

New Jersey’s standard, which applies to buildings occupied by public sector employees during regular work hours, includes more specific requirements. Introduced in 1997 and revised in 2007, the regulations “represent the consensus of stakeholders throughout the state and reflect changes in the field of occupational health and the evolving science of indoor air quality,” states the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDLWD). The NJDLWD’s regulations can serve as a model that employers that are not subject to specific IAQ standards can adopt and modify as needed to address IAQ in their workplaces. Following are selected key elements of the NJDLWD’s IAQ standard.

Select a designated person. Employers must identify a staff member called a designated person who will be responsible for compliance with all aspects of the standard. The designated person should be in a position of authority; have the ability to understand all aspects of the building’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system; and have the ability to effectively communicate with staff, management, and maintenance staff or contractors.

Prepare and implement a written program. Employers must prepare and implement a written IAQ compliance program that includes:

  • The identity and responsibilities of the designated person
  • Procedures for following a preventive maintenance schedule
  • A description of the process for maintaining required records
  • The location of IAQ compliance documents
  • A procedure for investigating employee complaints made to the employer
  • A procedure to notify employees of work that may introduce air contaminants
  • A description of how microbial contamination will be controlled
  • Procedures to control air contaminants
  • Methods for responding to temperature and/or carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations that are outside the recommended range
  • Plans for maintaining air quality during renovations and remodeling
  • Methods to obtain permits and perform work as required by New Jersey
  • A description of how natural ventilation is maintained in buildings without mechanical ventilation if applicable (e.g., are windows operable?)
  • Documentation of the annual review and update, including new or modified procedures, tasks, and personnel

Establish an HVAC preventive maintenance program. At a minimum, the program must include the following measures:

  • Check filtration system/change air filters/clean precipitators.
  • Check/change drive belts.
  • Lubricate moving parts.
  • Inspect motor function.
  • Ensure that all equipment is operating within specifications.
  • Visually inspect condensate drain pans for improper drainage or standing water or microbial growth.

Maintain a preventive maintenance log. At a minimum, the log requires the date, the activity performed, and the initials of the maintenance person. This log must be maintained on-site for a period of 3 years.

Maintain acceptable IAQ indicators. Employers must evaluate ventilation with two indicator parameters:

  • Temperature. If the indoor environment is outside of the range of 68°F to 79°F, the employer must ensure that the ventilation system is operating as designed. The standard does not require employers to modify or upgrade existing systems to achieve this range.
  • CO2. If CO2 concentration exceeds 1,000 parts per million (ppm), the employer must ensure that the system is operating as designed. The standard does not require employers to modify or upgrade existing systems to achieve this range.

Conduct IAQ complaint investigations. Employers must promptly investigate employee complaints concerning sick building syndrome (SBS), building-related illness (BRI), and complaints made by employees or employee representatives. The IAQ standard does not mandate a specific course of action regarding IAQ investigations.

Control of potential contaminant sources. Contaminants can enter the indoor work environment through makeup air (air that is drawn in to replace air that is exhausted) and various indoor sources of contaminants (e.g., chemicals or maintenance activities such as floor refinishing). If makeup air is found to be contaminated, the employer must eliminate the contaminant source or relocate the intake.

Manage building construction/renovation projects. When construction/renovation work is done, the IAQ standard requires employers to implement administrative and engineering controls before and during the project. Measures include notifying employees at least 24 hours in advance that there will be use of products that contain potentially hazardous ingredients.

The NJDLWD has issued an employer guide to its IAQ standard; the guide includes the text of the standard, the rationale behind the individual requirements, and a model written program. The guide is here.