Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) has the potential to be hazardous to worker’s health and failure to adequately respond to certain hazards can have serious long-lasting health issues; the EPA has identified IAQ as one of the top five most urgent environmental risks to public health.

When talking about occupational indoor air quality, it is exclusively referring to air quality in commercial and institutional buildings, such as schools or offices, and not industrial environments. There are three factors that can result in IAQ problems:

  • Indoor environment: Indoor environmental factors also include inadequate temperature, excessive moisture, and poor air circulation.
  • Indoor contaminants: Sources of indoor environmental contaminants include gases and particles from office machines, cleaning products, nearby construction activities, tobacco smoke, mold and other microbial growth, carpets and furnishings, perfume, and more.
  • Insufficient outdoor air intake: Improper operation of ventilation systems is arguably the top issue impacting IEQ. When not used or maintained correctly, HVAC systems can actually draw in solid or liquid particles from the outside distributing them indoors.

Aside from a faulty HVAC system, IAQ is commonly caused by:

  • Excessive moisture can cause bacteria, mold, and fungi to grow; can lead to allergic reactions, asthma, coughing, shortness of breath, sinus congestions, sinusitis, and more.
  • Poor housekeeping can result in biological pollutants such as pollen, animal dander, dust mites, etc.

Employees exposed to poor indoor air quality nay face a range of symptoms including headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritation to the eyes and nose, dizziness, shortness’s of breath, congestion, and more. However, these symptoms can easily be mistaken for other illnesses or forgotten about after the individual leaves the building. 

OSHA has not published specific standards about IAQ, but employers can find standards about ventilation and some of the air contaminants (like radon) related to IAQ problems. OSHA has also answered questions regarding the interpretation of standards (several of which specifically address IAQ issues) and published the guidance document Indoor Air Quality in Commercial and Institutional Buildings. Additionally, OSHA encourages building owners and managers to develop and implement an IAQ management plan to address, prevent, and resolve air quality problems.

When it comes to hazard control, OSHA recommends three basic control methods: source management, engineering controls, and administrative controls. It is also important to periodically test the air for quality. A carbon dioxide air-quality monitor for instance can give a rough indicator of the effectiveness of ventilation and excessive population density. Most indoor air problems can be resolved with good practices such as eliminating or substituting the source of the contaminant, installing and maintaining a well-designed HVAC system, implementing simple housekeeping practices, and educating building occupants.

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