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The Critical Role of Indoor Air Quality for Workplace Safety

Good indoor air quality in buildings is a crucial and often overlooked component of maintaining a healthy and productive indoor environment at the workplace.

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When indoor air quality is good it contributes to a favorable and productive environment for workers inside the building, providing a sense of comfort, health, and well-being. When Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is hazardous it then becomes a major concern because it will impact the health, safety, and productivity of workers in the building.

OSHA does not have an Indoor Air Quality standard, but the General Duty Clause may apply.

OSHA General Duty Clause 5(a)(1) Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.

Symptoms related to poor indoor air quality vary depending on the type of contaminant and they can easily be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses like allergies, stress, a cold, or the flu. The usual clue that there is an IAQ problem is that people feel ill while inside the building, but the symptoms go away shortly after leaving the building, or when they are away from the building for a longer period of time (weekends or vacation).

A person pointing to a damp windowsill that has mold on it indicating there could be an air quality problem.

Although there are numerous indoor air pollutants that can be spread through a building, they typically fall into three basic categories.


Excessive concentrations of bacteria, viruses, fungi, dust mites, animal dander, and pollen can happen when there is inadequate maintenance and housekeeping, water spills, inadequate humidity control, condensation, or water intrusion from leaks or flooding in the building.


Sources of chemical pollutants include emissions from products used in the building, accidental chemical spills, products used during construction activities such as adhesives and paints, and gases such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and nitrogen dioxide, which are products of combustion.


Particles are solid or liquid, non-biological substances that are light enough to be suspended in the air. Dust, dirt, or other substances can be drawn into the building from outside. Particles can also be produced by activities like construction, printing, copying, and operating equipment.

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Sources of indoor air pollution may include:

Building Site When buildings are located near highways or are on former industrial sites indoor air pollutants can be elevated due to traffic emissions or chemical residues.

Building Design Outside air intakes placed near sources where pollutants are drawn back into the building (idling vehicles, products of combustion, waste containers, etc.) or where building exhaust re-enters into the building can be a constant source of pollutants.

Building Systems When the HVAC system is not functioning properly outdoor pollutants such as particulates, vehicle exhaust, humid air, and parking garage contaminants can get in.

Renovation Activities Dust or other by-products of construction materials are sources of pollutants that may circulate through a building.

Local Exhaust Ventilation Kitchens, laboratories, maintenance shops, parking garages, beauty and nail salons, toilet rooms, trash rooms, soiled laundry rooms, locker rooms, copy rooms and other specialized areas may be a source of pollutants when they lack adequate local exhaust ventilation.

Building Materials Disturbing thermal insulation or sprayed-on acoustical material, or the presence of dampness on walls, ceilings, carpets, or shades may contribute to indoor air pollution.

Building Furnishings Cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed-wood products may release pollutants into the indoor air.

Building Maintenance Workers in areas in which pesticides, cleaning products, or personal-care products are being applied may be exposed to pollutants. Allowing cleaned carpets to dry without active ventilation may promote microbial growth.

A broom next to a big pile of dust and hair that has just been swept up.

The most common workplace complaints about indoor air quality are typically related to temperature, humidity, lack of outside air ventilation, or smoking. Common indoor air contaminants found are:

  • Carbon Monoxide (CO)
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Pesticides
  • Radon
  • Biological Contaminants
  • Damp Indoor Environments
  • Legionella
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Identifying the cause(s) of indoor air quality (IAQ) problems and complaints may be difficult if an obvious source is not evident.

Investigating unclear IAQ problems should take into account patterns and factors, such as occupant complaints and symptoms, location(s) in the building, time of day, seasonal differences, and relationship to activities inside or outside the building.

Once IAQ issues have been determined the next step is to fix problems identified and evaluate the results. If the fix did not resolve the problems or complaints, then further investigation will be needed.

When occupant complaints are related to symptoms or health problems, medical evaluation may be required.

A hand holding an air bubble with the words Air Quality on it indicating good air quality is important.

All of the occupants of a building can have a great influence on indoor air quality (IAQ). Everyday activities can generate odors and pollutants but by being aware of indoor air issues, occupants can help prevent problems.

Do not block air vents or grilles which can impact the HVAC system and airflow. Follow procedures to notify building management if your space is too hot, too cold, stuffy, or drafty.

Comply with the office and building smoking policy. Smoke in designated areas only.

Clean up all water spills promptly, water and maintain office plants properly, and report water leaks right away. Water creates a hospitable environment for the growth of micro-organisms such as molds or fungi. Some of these microbes, if they become airborne, can cause health problems.

Store food properly. Some foods, if left unrefrigerated, can spoil and generate unpleasant odors. Never store perishable food products in your desk or on shelves. Keep kitchens and dining areas clean and sanitize as necessary to prevent pests and maintain hygiene. Dispose of garbage promptly in appropriate containers that are emptied daily to prevent odors and biological contamination.

Avoid bringing products into the building that could release harmful or bothersome odors or contaminants.

Notify the building or facility manager immediately if you suspect an IAQ problem. This helps management determine the cause of the problem quickly so that a timely solution can be reached.

A safety video training program for Indoor Air Quality.

Marcom's safety video program on Indoor Air Quality discusses the health hazards that are associated with contaminated indoor air, the most common contaminants and where they come from, and what employees can do to help keep the air in their workplace clean and healthy.

This video training program covers the symptoms of poor air quality, sources of air contamination, what people in a building can do to improve the air quality, and more. Along with the video you will get a quiz, a scheduling and attendance form, a training certificate, and an employee training log.

This video is available on DVD, on USB, or in a Video-on-Demand (VOD) format that is instantly viewable. Choose which one works best for your company. For more information click the button below.


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