The importance of indoor air quality

The indoor air quality/HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) of buildings is essential, even more so with the Covid-19 pandemic that turned everything on its head. The state of a building and its air quality can affect human health and have a direct impact on work productivity.

Sick building syndrome

Sick building syndrome is when people who regularly occupy a building (like office workers) experience various troublesome symptoms, mainly when they spend time there. The syndrome is due to poor indoor air quality, inadequate ventilation or poorly maintained air-conditioning systems – especially in scenarios where the windows are sealed, or ventilation systems re-circulate the interior air.

Symptoms tend to be flu- or allergy-like and may include headaches, burning or itching eyes, a stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing, a sore throat, a tight chest, difficulty concentrating, nausea and fatigue. People prone to asthma or allergies may find that their usual symptoms worsen while they are in the suspect building.

Good quality air improves productivity

A good environment, including indoor air quality, has a direct impact on employees’ productivity. With the pandemic, it became an essential part of working in groups where proper ventilation was non-negotiable. A stable environment within a building is needed, with the provision of natural ventilation as old air-conditioners create impure levels of indoor pollution. Fluctuating temperatures and a lack of cleanliness contribute to sick building syndrome.

Sick building syndrome is when people who regularly occupy a building (like office workers) experience various troublesome symptoms, mainly when they spend time there.

Preventing sick building syndrome

The best way to manage sick building syndrome is to get professional assistance from an occupational health expert. Fresh air and natural light are needed. An occupational hygienist can test the air quality. A clean environment is very important. Clean carpets regularly and clean out filters in air-conditioning units.

Handheld devices allow building operators to easily monitor carbon dioxide (CO²) and other substances to ensure the health of occupants, especially in healthcare facilities, classrooms, offices, factories and places that are susceptible to the build-up of gases.

“We also find that the problem is exasperated at times of the year when windows and doors are shut for comfort reasons, which may inadvertently also contribute to sick building syndrome,” says Ernest Campling, managing director of Euca Technologies, the agents for Onset monitoring devices in South Africa.

The monitoring devices are small, unobtrusive and highly accurate. They allow easy access to air quality information from a handheld device or laptop via plug-in or the cloud. It gives building owners and landlords insights to support better decisions regarding ventilation control and HVAC upgrades – projects that can lead to significant energy savings and improved overall indoor air quality.

Managing a sick building back to health

The following simple measures should help relieve the problem:

  • Get air flowing with proper circulation. If you work in an older building without air-conditioning, keep the windows and doors open whenever possible and use or enquire about installing ceiling fans.
  • Go outside or to areas with good natural ventilation for lunch breaks.
  • Meet your building manager to confirm who is responsible for maintaining the ventilation system.
  • Reduce indoor air pollution. Ask that cleaning is done at times of low building occupancy.

HVAC maintenance in South Africa

A properly maintained HVAC system protects the people in a building from poor air quality and protects the equipment. Sadly, maintenance in our country is hardly ever done preventatively. A contractor’s help is only called upon in case of an emergency.

Why isn’t it maintained?

It is costly and owners of buildings try to minimise maintenance costs, but the irony is that by being ignorant it is even more costly.

Alastair Collins, managing director of Atlas Air, explains that they have a problem with people not taking HVAC maintenance seriously. “The reality is that times are tough, and clients are also under constant pressure to trim budgets, so they try to push the servicing of equipment out further. This may save them money immediately but ends up costing much more when the HVAC system doesn’t run at optimum or starts failing, which if not maintained correctly, will happen.”

Robbie Di Giovampaolo, director of Ampair, explains further: “The industry is facing an alarming lack of skilled talent, especially in terms of technicians. Ampair has recently launched its own skills development centre to ensure that its staff are continuously upskilled. Service levels in our country are sub-standard and it is hard to get workers you can trust.”

How can sick building syndrome be prevented?

Some of the ways to ensure that indoor air is kept at appropriate levels in-between scheduled maintenance check-ups include:

  • Keep an eye on the air vents – you can find out if mould or other pollutants are entering your occupied space.
  • Watch for a musty odour.
  • Keep in touch with tenants/occupants and ask them to participate in surveys regarding air quality.
  • Listen to people’s complaints and take them seriously.

Full acknowledgement and thanks go to,,,, for the information in this editorial.

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