In previous issues of FLOORS in Africa magazine, we discussed how proper floorcare and maintenance can increase the lifespan of a flooring installation. In this feature, we want to focus on how building elements – of which flooring is crucial part – play a vital role in ensuring the well-being of the occupants of a building.

What is sick building syndrome?
The term “sick building syndrome” (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localised in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building. According to a World Health Organisation Committee, new and remodelled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (IAQ). When a building is operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedures, problems may arise.

Some of the symptoms associated with SBS include headache; eye, nose or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; sensitivity to odours; coughing; chest tightness; fever, chills; and muscle aches. Many complainants report relief soon after leaving the building, while others may require prolonged recovery times.

The following causes of SBS have been identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency:
• Inadequate ventilation
• Chemical contaminants from indoor sources
• Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources
• Biological contaminants such as bacteria, moulds, pollen and viruses

While the symptoms of SBS may seem mild and do not appear to cause any lasting damage, those suffering from SBS can experience considerable distress, says a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the United Kingdom. In severe cases, they can affect attitudes to work and many represent a significant cost to business in the form of:
• reduced staff efficiency
• increased absenteeism and staff turnover
• extended breaks and reduced overtime
• lost time complaining and dealing with complaints

SBS isn’t always easy to diagnose. In an article by Dr Ronald Hoffman, one of America’s foremost complementary medicine practitioners and the author of numerous books and articles for the public and for health professionals, Dr Hoffman describes a 22-year-old woman named Rita who came to see him because she was suffering from extraordinary fatigue, headaches, jitteriness and inability to concentrate.

“Rita’s doctor thought she might be suffering from hyperthyroidism, but her tests were normal. Her doctor finally referred her to a psychologist who concluded she was having severe emotional problems related to work anxiety. Rita admitted that she usually felt sick at work but on weekends she felt great,” writes Dr Hoffman.

The catch was that she had held her job for three years and only when the company moved to a new building, had she started feeling tired and sick. Dr Hoffman suspected she was suffering from SBS and requested that she take mould plates to the office and expose them. The mould plates were then analysed and it showed that there was fungus and mould growth, which were the source of Rita’s troubles.

Is dealing with SBS expensive?
Dealing with SBS need not be costly if you start with the simplest things first and only move on to more expensive options the changes implemented don’t work, says the HSE. Sophisticated remedial work, such as improving ventilation systems, changing open plan to individual offices or introducing air conditioning, can be expensive as well as very disruptive. The immediate effect can be to increase complaints by introducing new problems, for example a dusty and noisy atmosphere or disruption of workplace routine.

Maintenance of the building and building services systems, as well as cleaning operations (including office furnishings) play a key role in helping to maintain a healthy working environment.

Cleaning can be a major factor in preventing SBS. Cleaning methods and choice of cleaning materials are equally important. “Good maintenance procedures are often the best way to prevent or reduce SBS symptoms, and careful planning will help produce the best results,” says the HSE. An effective scheme includes drawing up schedules to record the type and frequency of:
• system performance testing
• visual inspections of physical conditions
• examination of system components
• replacement of items with fixed life spans, such as filters
• cleaning operations

With regard to flooring, certain materials have been known to cause more exposure to chemicals, while other types of flooring can help minimise the impact of SBS. Natalie McCatty, a professional blogger for Facilitec, wrote an article for Wahmresourcesite.com listing how raised access flooring can reduce SBS in the following ways:
• Lower concentration of airborne contaminants: less duct work means decreased static pressure and reduced fan power, which can ultimately lead to better ventilation.
• Localised temperature control: occupants can direct air toward or away from themselves via floor outlets.
• Ongoing access to conditioned air: with access flooring, the air is delivered from below, as opposed to conditioned air being mixed with used, polluted air that is rising to the ceiling.

Regardless of the type of flooring that is installed, proper maintenance is critical for ensuring improved indoor air quality, the wellness of the occupants of the building, as well as the longevity of the flooring installation. Flooring installations that have a negative impact on the well-being of employees will not be used long term in buildings, which is why investing in proper floorcare and maintenance is of paramount importance.

Specialised tip: While the symptoms of SBS may seem mild and do not appear to cause any lasting damage, those suffering from SBS can experience considerable distress.

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to www.epa.gov, www.hse.gov.uk, www.wahmresourcesite.com and www.drhoffman.com for some of the information contained in this article.