Poor Air Quality, Impact on Worker Safety

by | Apr 24, 2018 | Preventative Maintenance Program, Safety Compliance, Worker Safety, Working Conditions

Impact of Poor Air Quality on Worker Safety

Health and safety managers around the globe have a variety of worker safety issues to contend with and it can be difficult to keep on top of the trends and details across the board. While many health and safety plans focus on common workplace injuries (slips, trips and falls, overexertion injuries, falling objects, etc.), many overlook the perils of other workplace conditions which impact worker safety like noise exposure and poor air quality.

Forgetting to focus on noise and air quality safety compliance can have a damaging impact – both to the workers affected and to the company’s bottom line. With an increase in the number of people spending more time indoors, indoor air quality (IAQ) has become a growing concern for organizations. 

The Short and Long-Term Effects of Poor Air Quality

Poor air quality can negatively impact both workers and business owners in several ways. The most obvious and critical is the health and wellbeing of employees. Poor air quality can cause a variety of symptoms including:

  • dryness and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • hypersensitivity to allergies
  • sinus congestion
  • coughing and sneezing
  • dizziness
  • nausea


Usually, these are immediate and short-term effects of poor air quality and can be treated by reducing exposure. However, the challenge is that many of these symptoms can be mistaken for other ailments like a cold, flu or allergies. A variety of health issues as a result of poor IAQ have been identified including Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)/Tight Building Syndrome (TBS), Building-Related Illness (BRI), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS).

However, the longer-term impact of repeated exposure to poor air quality can significantly impact the lives of those workers affected and their families. Long-term exposure can lead to respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer; these effects can be severely incapacitating or fatal.

The Cost of Poor Air Quality

Clearly, short and long-term health effects impact organizations financially as a result of absenteeism/sick leave. An increase in sick days used can be a tremendous cost and the bigger the organization, the bigger the financial impact. For example, a recent IAQ report demonstrates that if poor air quality results in an additional 3 sick days per year for 100 employees, it can cost the organization over $71,000 annually.

However, the costs associated with absenteeism is just the tip of the iceberg. Employees who continue to come to work, suffering from poor air quality-related effects, are significantly less productive. A study by The National Institutes of Health reported a decline in employee productivity of almost 10%. In addition, working conditions with inadequate ventilation and carpeting (known factors in poor IAQ), can cause up to 4% declines in each variable: employees’ typing speed, typing accuracy, and proofreading accuracy, as reported by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory studies. There are also measurable declines in employees’ ability to concentrate and perform mental and physical tasks. A recent IAQ report estimates that lost productivity of 100 employees can cost the organization almost $250,000 annually.

As you can imagine, the cost of lost productivity and accuracy can escalate quickly, especially for larger companies.

Although most regions in Canada do not have legislation specific to indoor air quality, the concept (which is common to all Canadian health and safety legislation) that employers have a general duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace applies. Organizations can be found legally and financially liable for poor air quality that impacts their employees; legal claims can include negligence and workers’ compensation, among others. Costs can skyrocket for legal fees, settlements, insurance payouts, etc.

Steps to Improving Workplace Air Quality

Most organizations care about their employees and want to ensure worker safety plans are in place. However, IAQ is perhaps a more obscure safety concern that not all health and safety programs take into account. Here are some steps your organization can take to ensure safety compliance for indoor air quality:

  1. Investigate suspected IAQ problems – look for possible causes including ventilation, chemicals, and mold. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers a sample IAQ inspection checklist. Also, your local safety specialist can perform an investigation.
  2. Test indoor air quality – find a qualified IAQ consultant and establish a scope and plan for IAQ testing. Alberta’s Ministry of Labour offers an Indoor Air Quality Tool Kit which has a great template for evaluating IAQ consultants (pg. 45). However, be sure to hire an expert in indoor air quality testing to confirm findings.
  3. Safety compliance– investigate and comply with the safety regulations and best practices that apply to your organization’s indoor air quality. A few good places to start: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Indoor Air Quality and the Government of Canada’s Air Quality services and information. To ensure safety compliance, be sure to consult with your local safety experts and purchase industrial tools and supplies that meet safety compliance standards.
  4. Limit excessive moisture/humidity – unnecessary moisture can promote the growth of bacteria and mold, compromising air quality.
  5. Ensure air pollutant sources and dust/dirt are well-managed – these sources would include renovation-related pollutants (e.g. sanding wood/drywall), exhaust fumes, tobacco smoke, chemicals, printing/copying and other equipment etc.
  6. Optimize your buildings – maintain optimal air intake flow/ventilation and building pressure.
  7. Implement a health and safety preventative maintenance program– routine servicing of equipment and building systems can help improve indoor air quality. Ideally, your health and safety program should incorporate health and safety supplies, equipment and safety workwear including respirators and masks for employees who encounter pollutants and disposable coveralls which can ensure pollutants are not brought through areas where workers are unprotected from airborne contaminants.

Clearing the Air for Improved Worker Safety

Whether in an office building or an industrial work environment, maintaining ideal working conditions for worker safety means not forgetting to place focus on overlooked areas, like indoor air quality. The costs of poor air quality in your employees’ working environment is far too high, for your employees and for your business.

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