Is Sick Building Syndrome affecting your workforce?

12 June 2017

Sick Building Syndrome is a term used when employees show signs of sickness – a headache, dry throat or sore eyes, for example – that increase in severity while in the workplace, and then improve or disappear while away from the workplace.

What are Sick Building Syndrome symptoms?

Symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of concentration
  • Tight chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore eyes
  • Dry or itchy eyes, nose or throat
  • Blocked, irritated or running nose
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Skin rashes.

With Sick Building Syndrome, not all employees will necessarily have the same symptoms, and some employees may suffer from several symptoms at once.

Sick Building Syndrome symptoms generally improve or disappear when the employee leaves the workplace, and then return when they re-enter the premises.

Who does Sick Building Syndrome affect?

Sick Building Syndrome can affect anyone. However, it’s said that individuals who work in large offices without opening windows and with air conditioning or mechanical ventilation systems are at greatest risk, due to the bacteria and viruses being passed around.  As well as those who cannot vary their workload and control their working environment.

Sick Building Syndrome risk factors

The cause of Sick Building Syndrome is unknown. Possible risk factors include:

  • Poor ventilation in the workplace
  • Low or high humidity in the workplace
  • High temperatures
  • Changing temperatures
  • Dust, carpet fibres or fungal spores
  • Airborne chemical pollutants from things like cleaning materials
  • Electrostatic charges
  • Large open plan offices
  • Poor hygiene in the workplace
  • Poor lighting
  • Employees not using display screen equipment properly
  • Psychological factors – low staff morale or stress, for example.

Employer responsibilities

If you’ve got employees who you suspect are suffering from Sick Building Syndrome, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests the below steps to get to the root of the cause.

1. Survey employees to identify any patterns in when the symptoms occur. You never know, it may identify any obvious causes that could easily be fixed.

2. Take a look around your premises to see how clean it is. Go as far as checking the vacuum cleaners (if they’re stored internally) to ensure they’re working as they should and that the filters are clean.

3. Ensure all cleaning materials and products are being used and stored as they should.

4. Service all of your heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. There should be a minimum fresh air flow rate of 8 litres per second, per person.

5. Review all the air filters, humidifiers, de-humidifiers and cooling towers in the premises and check the condition and cleanliness of their filters.

6. The HSE recommends that workplace humidity should be between 40-70% – check your premises falls within this range.

7. If you have a schedule for heating, ventilation and air conditioning system maintenance, stick to it. If you don’t have a schedule, put one in place. Office temperatures should be around 19oC.

8. Lighting should avoid glare, flicker and noise, and be appropriate for the work – especially with Display Screen Equipment (DSE).

9. Ensure cleaning patterns are optimised. The HSE suggest ventilation systems and grills are cleaned annually, windows monthly and light fittings three monthly. Internal surfaces, carpets and furniture – like desks and chairs, should be cleaned daily, and soft furnishings should be given an annual deep clean.

Once steps one to seven have been carried out, hand another survey out to your employees to see if Sick Building Syndrome symptoms are still present.

And if they’re still present?

If you’ve followed all the HSE’s steps and Sick Building Syndrome symptoms are still present, a more in-depth investigation will be required. This should be done by a building services engineer – or someone with similar qualifications.

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