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3/29/2021 - Odor Surveys and Assessments - 2021

If you ever had an odor or indoor air quality issue within your facility you can appreciate the difficultly in identifying the sources or causes and responding to questions from employees.

Indoor Air Quality in the Workplace

Monday, March 1, 2021
Indoor Air Quality in the Workplace

Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can create many health issues for workers. Building occupants could develop breathing problems, cancer, skin issues, headaches, airborne infections and other health concerns. It could contribute to sick building syndrome or building-related illness (BRI) if it affects many workers.

Indoor air quality concerns everyone. As a building manager, you are responsible for providing a safe, healthy and well-maintained building. Your occupants want a safe place to work. Employers want an environment that enhances workplace productivity and reduces liabilities. Meanwhile, your building owners want an attractive location that employers want to rent.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also has several standards for indoor air quality. Standard 1910.1000 limits the air contaminants workers can be exposed to, and Standard 1910.94 adds more requirements, regulating workplace ventilation systems to ensure safe breathing air.

Learn how indoor air quality impacts the workplace and strategies for how to remedy issues.

Factors That Contribute to Indoor Air Quality

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor environments often have two to five times higher pollutant concentrations than outdoor environments. When employees complain about an unpleasant smell, breathing problems, headaches or another health issue, you must determine the cause. Many pollutants and circumstances can create indoor air quality concerns.

Outdoor Contamination

Fresh air is crucial to indoor air quality. Often, one of the best solutions for IAQ concerns is to introduce more air from outside. However, when a building has contaminants nearby, they can affect indoor air quality. Many outdoor contaminants can get swept indoors through the ventilation system, including:

  • Dust, pollen and fungal spores.
  • Exhaust from the building or a neighboring building.
  • Industrial pollutants.
  • Exhaust from cars and nearby traffic or loading docks.
  • Odors from dumpsters or unsanitary debris near the outdoor air intake.
  • Soil gas such as radon, underground fuel tank leakage, methane from landfills, pesticides and other leaching contaminants.
  • Moisture and standing water with microbes from rooftops and crawl spaces.

Indoor Contamination

Indoor pollution is one of the most significant factors involved in poor air quality. Contamination from inside a building causes 16% of IAQ issues, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Chemicals, odor and exhaust originating from an indoor space can all create indoor air pollution. Some common offenders are bathrooms, copy rooms, kitchens, smoking lounges, laboratories, exercise rooms, print shops and art rooms, workshops and beauty salons.

Indoor contamination can come from many sources, including:

  • Office equipment emissions like ozone or volatile organic compounds.
  • Supplies like printer toner, solvents and ammonia.
  • Shops, labs and cleaning equipment emissions.
  • Mechanical systems like elevator motors.
  • Carpets, curtains, old furniture and open shelving that collects or releases dust and fibers.
  • Damaged materials that contain asbestos.
  • Soiled or water-damaged furniture harboring bacteria or mold.
  • Furniture or building materials that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or inorganic compounds.
  • Surface condensation that promotes microbial growth.
  • Clogged or poorly designed drains that allow standing water to accumulate.
  • Sewer gas passing through dry traps.

HVAC Systems

Proper temperature, ventilation and humidity levels are crucial for healthy indoor air. Extreme temperatures are a health hazard, and a few degrees in the wrong direction makes a workspace uncomfortable. Humidity also needs to fall within an acceptable window. Low humidity can cause dry skin or nasal passages and eye irritation. Excessive moisture content causes water to condense, encouraging mold and dust mites. Meanwhile, ventilation lets fresh air enter from outside and filters out carbon dioxide from the indoor environment.

Your building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system controls all these factors. A well-designed HVAC system ensures a comfortable, safe and productive work environment. Malfunctions with the HVAC can affect the temperature, humidity or ventilation levels. According to NIOSH, inadequate ventilation causes 52% of indoor air quality problems.

The system can also become contaminated. An HVAC system may cause IAQ issues through:

  • Dust and dirt in the air ducts.
  • Mold or bacteria in the drip pans, ductwork, coils or humidifiers.
  • Cleaning compounds, sealants or biocides wafting through the equipment.
  • Leaking refrigerant.

Even a clean HVAC in perfect working order can contribute to IAQ issues. If contaminants from another source are present, the HVAC becomes the vehicle that distributes them around the building.

Human Activity

The employees or residents in your building can also affect indoor air quality. Smoking, cosmetic odors and body odors can all pose air quality concerns.

Sometimes, people's work-related activities contribute to indoor air quality problems. Some of these activities include:

  • Cleaning procedures.
  • Storing cleaning supplies or trash improperly.
  • Using deodorizers or fragrances.
  • Circulating dust or dirt through sweeping or vacuuming.
  • Releasing dust or fibers during demolition.
  • Using paint, caulk, adhesives and other products that contain VOCs.
  • Spraying pesticides.

Miscellaneous Sources

Some of the other sources for IAQ issues include:

  • Accidental spills.
  • Microbe growth related to floods, roof leaks or piping.
  • Fire damage like soot.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls from electrical equipment and odors.
  • Emissions from new furniture.
  • Microbes released during demolition or remodeling.

Problems That Require Immediate Action

When it comes to occupational safety and health, air quality is vital. Indoor air quality issues can range from mild discomfort to life-threatening situations. While any indoor air quality concern is worth investigating, some need immediate attention. Those problems include:

  • Nausea, headaches and combustion odor complaints: These symptoms could mean carbon monoxide poisoning. Look at all possible combustion gas sources and test for carbon monoxide.
  • A Legionnaire's disease diagnosis: When one or more workers report Legionnaire's disease, you must determine if your building was the source. This life-threatening bacterial infection can come from standing water or a contaminated HVAC system. Contact your state or local health department to discuss the best course of action. After any diagnosis, watch for new cases.
  • Water damaged carpeting: When a roof leak or flood soaks the carpeting, lift and dry it immediately. If you cannot thoroughly dry it, discard it. After such an incident, clean and disinfect to prevent mold and bacteria from growing.

Preventing IAQ Issues Before They Start

As a building manager, you already know how valuable preventive maintenance is. Fixing problems before they worsen saves your building money and enhances safety. The same is true for indoor air quality. Here are two strategies for preventing air quality problems.

Develop an IAQ Profile

An IAQ profile is like your own personal building owner's manual. It establishes all the factors that enhance or detract from the building's air quality and helps you identify problems and prioritize budgets for future maintenance and upgrades. As you create your IAQ profile, you'll inspect your whole building. Doing so can help you uncover and prevent issues.

Developing your IAQ profile will take three steps:

  1. Collect existing records: Organize records about your building's initial construction and remodels, HVAC systems and room use history. Also, review operating manuals and any occupant complaints.
  2. Do a building walk-through: Look at occupant activities and building functions. Besides visual inspection, talk to staff and occupants about their activities and concerns. Review maintenance, housekeeping and pest control. Keep an eye and nose out for IAQ problem indicators.
  3. Collect more detailed information: Prioritize areas where you've identified potential IAQ concerns. Inspect your HVAC system and catalog pollutant pathways using a building floor plan. Inventory all pollutants and sources alongside all chemicals used and stored in the building.

Use Management Techniques

Effectively managing your staff, occupants and systems is critical for indoor air quality. Everyone must recognize their collective goal for providing a healthy environment and how IAQ contributes to one. An important step here is to select an IAQ manager to "own" indoor air quality. That person will train staff, assign duties and oversee occupant activities that contribute to IAQ.

Managing your indoor environment will also require open communications with all building occupants. This ensures you get word on any health complaints that could relate to your building's air. You must oversee:

  • Building and HVAC maintenance
  • Cleaning schedules
  • Material, supply and product selection and purchasing
  • Trash disposal
  • Pest control
  • Renovations
  • Material handling, storage, shipping and receiving
  • Occupant work activities and habits

Communicating IAQ Problems in the Workplace

Maintaining open communication with your team is critical. It can help you catch problems earlier and is vital for keeping everyone safe and healthy.

Communicating to prevent issues involves teaching workers about their role in indoor air quality. You should also establish a system for responding to complaints. Make sure occupants can easily report their concerns and that you respond quickly.

Communicating to resolve problems is even more critical. Fixing a health concern requires effective collaboration, accurate information and swift action. Those who complain about an odor, illness or discomfort are usually responding to a real issue. They may not always attribute it to the correct cause, so it's vital to investigate all possibilities. Listen respectfully and never underestimate a concern.

Ensure your building occupants know you take IAQ seriously. Show how invested you are in creating a healthy, safe environment by making people aware of the steps you have and will take and listing a contact for those who have more questions. Keep the lines of communication open, and alert occupants to delays or complications. Know when to loop in the building's health and safety managers. Keep health complaints confidential, and quell rumors by divulging facts appropriately.

Investigating Indoor Air Quality: IAQ Checklists

We've put together several checklists, offering tips, steps and resources. Use them to perform various IAQ surveys and meet IAQ-related goals.

When to Get an Expert Opinion

It's important to bring in the right professionals during your inspections. If you're not familiar with the HVAC system, conduct your review alongside an HVAC engineer. When considering the air quality conditions created by any equipment you don't work with, whether it's an elevator or a forklift, talk to the operator or a qualified engineer.

Also, know when to get help from an indoor air quality expert. They'll help you identify the areas of concern and check all the boxes to help you maintain a healthy building. If you're unsure how to complete any items on your IAQ checklists, an expert can assist you.

The specialists you may need to involve include:

  • HVAC professionals
  • Engineers or equipment operators
  • Certified industrial hygienists (CIHs)
  • Indoor air quality consultants
  • Indoor air quality expert witnesses

Conducting an IAQ Inspection

Many investigation strategies can help you uncover IAQ concerns and sources. An initial inspection can help you get started. No matter what type of investigation you perform, your initial assessment should yield:

  • Names and contact information on all staff and contractors whose duties could affect IAQ.
  • An understanding of the training and experience of these staff members.
  • Schedules and procedures for facility operations and maintenance.
  • Schedules and procedures for housekeeping duties.
  • Schedules and procedures for pest control.
  • A floor plan with drawings and notes on air pressure relationships in each room and any IAQ problem indicators.

These initial inspections can help you determine whether indoor air quality testing for your workplace is necessary.

Investigative Indoor Air Quality Surveys

An investigative IAQ survey usually follows occupant complaints on allergens, odors or other IAQ issues. It involves three steps:

  • Interview employees and employers: The people who work in the affected area have crucial first-hand experience. Each individual may have different symptoms, concerns or discomforts to share. The inspector will start with one-on-one interviews, followed by group discussions.
  • Inspect the site: Conduct a thorough site examination, looking for contaminants and other air-related issues. Here, an air quality professional collects samples from the HVAC system for laboratory evaluation. They'll also use instruments to take immediate readings on-site.
  • Evaluate the overall environment: Next, scientists will analyze the lab samples. Testing can reveal bioaerosols and biological contaminants. If your HVAC tests positive for microbial contamination, call in a professional, like the 1Source team, to remediate it.

Proactive Indoor Air Quality Surveys

Regularly scheduled proactive IAQ survey programs provide ongoing monitoring for potential air contaminants. IAQ surveys happen periodically, with frequency based on your building's IAQ needs. Their steps include:

  • Test IAQ: Air sampling and on-site readings test for various contaminants.
  • Inspect ductwork: Look for obstructions, contaminants or structural problems in the air ducts. Address these concerns before they cause health issues.
  • Conduct a mechanical hygiene survey: An HVAC specialist should check your system for debris and residue. They'll prescribe cleaning procedures to restore hygienic conditions.
  • Assess the HVAC: The HVAC specialist will also look over the system, ensure it works properly and review your maintenance plan.
  • Perform a walk-through survey: A CIH should walk through your facility, inspecting equipment, systems, operations and the environment.
  • Assess occupant activities: The inspectors will ask about any occupant activities that may impact air quality.
  • Inventory chemical usage: The specialists will ask about the chemicals used in operations in and near your building.
  • Analyze impact from adjacent businesses: An analysis of nearby buildings and their activities can reveal their influence on your building's IAQ.

Planned Indoor Air Quality Management Programs

Developing a comprehensive IAQ management program for your building requires many steps, including:

  • Assign an IAQ manager: Pick someone to run your indoor air quality workplace program. They'll be the point of contact and responsible party for all IAQ issues.
  • Train employees in IAQ: Facilities staff should receive training on how to identify and resolve IAQ issues.
  • Evaluate IAQ: Perform a baseline IAQ audit to guide your program. Keep up with proactive IAQ surveys.
  • Design policies and protocols: Create a written IAQ manual that includes the policies and procedures necessary to maintain acceptable IAQ. The manual can contain training requirements and instructions specific to your workplace.
  • Structure an IAQ program budget: Your IAQ program might call for HVAC upgrades or frequent preventive maintenance. You might call in consultants regularly for IAQ sampling or employee training. Resolving issues may also require a consultant. Develop a plan for your expected IAQ expenses, and leave some room for unexpected problems and expenditures.

Environmental-Related Disease Investigation

BRIs, also referred to as environmental-related diseases, are a serious concern. If many occupants report similar symptoms or diseases, you must investigate. Your environmental-related disease examination should start by answering five questions:

  • What symptoms do the affected workers report?
  • How many new cases have occurred within a given period?
  • How many people experienced the condition at once?
  • What is the demographic makeup of affected occupants, and how do the disease rates differ by population?
  • Do affected workers perform tasks that increase their likelihood of developing symptoms?

Answering those questions requires three steps:

  • Interview building occupants about on-site activities and work environments.
  • Test environmental samples and take on-site instrument readings.
  • Inspect the affected site for mold, structural issues and other IAQ concerns.

Additional Surveys

Depending on the complaints or causes for concern in your building, you may conduct additional surveys. Assessments to evaluate your indoor air quality from specific pollutants or to meet IAQ goals include:

  • Odor surveys
  • Microbiological assessments
  • LEED IAQ testing
  • Vapor intrusion testing
  • Asbestos environmental quality assurance monitoring
  • Lead-based paint surveys

Managing Pollutant Sources

Once you discover your pollutant sources, work with your IAQ manager and other personnel to remove or mitigate the pollutant. This will likely involve training, facility maintenance and ongoing inspections.

Staff Training

Depending on the source, your team may need new training on how to remove it. If it's not something your team can safely remove on their own, call in an expert who can clean your facility and remove the contaminants. If the pollutant source is related to staff activities, resolve the issue over the long term by training them in safer procedures.

This may involve new training for personnel involved in:

  • Housekeeping
  • Pest control
  • Tenant relations
  • Renovation, redecorating and remodeling

If the pollutant is related to building occupants smoking on-site, train workers in where to smoke and how to protect their fellow occupants.

Facility Operation and Maintenance

The people, materials and equipment involved in facility operation and maintenance are all closely linked with IAQ. Managing pollutants may require new practices, equipment and procedures related to:

  • Equipment operation schedules: Ventilation cycles should coincide with the building's occupancy schedule. Ventilation should flush the building before occupants arrive each day. When the building is unoccupied in humid climates, periodic ventilation prevents mold.
  • Odor and contaminant control: Your ventilation design should consider the odor and contaminant sources in your building. The system should avoid recirculating air from areas identified as contamination sources. Generally, these areas need positive pressure and adequate exhaust ventilation.
  • HVAC systems: Follow your HVAC equipment's manufacturer recommended maintenance schedules. Inspect and clean the system regularly, paying attention to the components exposed to water. As you upgrade your HVAC, track all changes and catalog all equipment manuals.
  • Building maintenance schedules: Schedule building maintenance that may interfere with HVAC operations or introduce emissions during times when the building is unoccupied. Inform building occupants when these activities will occur.
  • Purchasing: Many materials and chemicals come with material safety data sheets. Look at the data that comes with each material, paying special attention to chemical emissions. Make IAQ considerations part of every product your building purchases.
  • Preventive maintenance: Consider investing in maintenance indicators for HVACs and other equipment. These monitors help you perform maintenance before it affects equipment performance.

Ongoing Inspections

After introducing new training, equipment and practices, continue monitoring your environment. This helps you determine if your changes are effectively managing your pollutants. Conduct proactive IAQ surveys regularly. Your IAQ consultant can make recommendations for ongoing inspections and frequency, tailored to your workplace, schedule and pollutant concerns.

Resolving IAQ Problems

Every IAQ issue comes from specific sources. Each situation requires a different approach and a range of possible solutions. Some of the common remedies include:

  • Controlling the source by removing or reducing it, sealing it off or otherwise modifying the environment.
  • Using ventilation to draw the contaminant outside, dilute it with fresh air or contain it with pressure relationships.
  • Cleaning the air using particulate filters, electrostatic precipitators, negative ion generators or gas sorption.
  • Controlling exposure by scheduling contaminant-producing activities outside of the building's active hours.
  • Relocating susceptible individuals.

To better understand the strategic thinking involved in improving indoor air quality, consider some common examples.

Sample Problem — Outdoor Contamination

Outdoor contamination can enter your building through your HVAC's air intakes. It could involve soil gases like radon, emissions from vehicles in the parking lot or loading dock and other pollutants.

Here are a few approaches to remediating these types of contamination:

  • Remove the source: Relocate dumpsters and debris near the air intake.
  • Reduce the source: Shift schedules for outdoor construction, roofing, demolition, painting, housekeeping and pest control outside of peak occupied periods.
  • Relocate the ventilation: Move outdoor air intakes away from odor and contamination sources. Or, move exhausts away from air intakes, windows and doors to prevent recirculation.
  • Adjust air pressure relationships: Depressurize your building's subslab to prevent soil gas from entering. In addition, give the building positive pressure compared to the outdoors. Close pollutant pathways by sealing cracks and holes.
  • Add specialized HVAC equipment: Install filtration that can remove the pollutant in question.

Sample Problem — HVAC System Contamination

Another common IAQ problem comes from contamination in the HVAC system. There could be dust, dirt or microbes inside the equipment, which circulates it into the indoor environment.

Here, the best option is to remove the source. Some removal strategies include:

  • Inspect the equipment for corrosion and humidity, then replace corroded components.
  • Regularly clean drip pans, outdoor air intakes and other elements exposed to moisture.
  • When necessary, use disinfectants, biocides and sanitizers with caution to avoid exposing occupants to chemical pollutants.

Learn More About 1Source IAQ Consulting

Investigating and preventing IAQ concerns is critical to protecting your workplace and building occupants. It may involve many sources, contaminants, health conditions, symptoms and solutions. The consultants at 1Source can help you maintain a safe, healthy environment. We can conduct general surveys and test for specific concerns, including odor, bacteria, microbiologicals and vapors. After IAQ testing, we recommend comprehensive solutions customized to your workplace. We can even help you develop an effective IAQ management program or act as an expert witness in an IAQ case.

For more information about how we can help you, request a quote online or call our offices at 619-524-5525.