Indoor Air Quality at Work

The average person spends up to up to 90% of their day inside. For many people, that time may be spent in an indoor workplace. That’s why the air quality at workplace environments is a major concern for people with asthma and allergies.

It’s not just a concern for people who work at construction sites or around harmful pollutants. It is an issue for everyone, including people sitting behind a computer. Sometimes it is hard to identify what is causing asthma and allergy symptoms in the workplace. Many times we may not realize our lungs are being irritated by poor indoor air quality. Sometimes a simple change can fix it.

Woman working in an office on a computer. There's a humidifier next to her that may be emitting molds if it wasn't cleaned properly and often.

Indoor Air Pollutants at Work

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says there are three main types of indoor air pollution in workplaces:

Biological. You may encounter bacteria, germs and allergens such as animal dander and dust mites that can cause poor air quality.

Chemical. Chemicals and emissions from equipment used in the workplace can pollute indoor air.

Particle. The air you breathe may contain tiny or microscopic particles such as dust. These particles can linger in the air. You may inhale them into your lungs. These particles could be present in indoor air or brought in from outdoor air.

Common allergens, irritants, furnishings and devices that can impact air quality in the workplace include:

  • Mold due to moisture and humidity levels
  • Tobacco smoke or secondhand smoke
  • Dust
  • Pests including cockroaches, mice, and rats
  • Dust mites on furnishings and carpeting in office buildings
  • Copy machines (can emit ozone)
  • Electrostatic air cleaners (can emit ozone)
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Lead
  • Chemical pollutants from cleaning supplies
  • Particles resulting from indoor maintenance activities, such as paint or sanding
  • Adhesives and glues, off-gassing of construction materials
  • Odors and fragrances, such as perfumes or cologne

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) says more than half of their cases of indoor air quality concerns involve faulty building ventilation systems. The ventilation system may be poorly designed, poorly maintained, or not operating efficiently.

Professional working cleaning light panels to keep the air clean indoors.

Strategies to Improve Indoor Air Quality at the Workplace

Good air quality is about limiting exposure to conditions that set off symptoms. But this may not be easy when your paycheck depends on working in a particular environment. If you think you may have work-related asthma or allergies, make an appointment with your primary care doctor or an asthma specialist. Prior to the appointment, track your symptoms daily and record the following:

  • Do symptoms occur just at work, and then go away when you get home?
  • Are they related to a certain time of day, season, or location at work?
  • Do symptoms worsen after use of certain cleaning supplies?
  • Did symptoms start during or after a renovation or construction project?
  • Is the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system functioning correctly?
  • Are partitions or obstructions blocking fresh air flow?
  • Are there others at work with similar complaints?

If your doctor determines your workplace is making you sick, talk with your employer, building manager or supervisor about ways to reduce exposure. It could be as simple as improving inadequate ventilation around office machines or cleaning up mold in storage areas. If there’s ongoing construction, ask if telecommuting is an option. It may be helpful to get a group of coworkers to advocate with you.

EPA has an online guide for workplace indoor air quality issues – the Office Building Occupants Guide to Indoor Air Quality. It offers three strategies to address poor indoor air quality.

  • Management – limit or remove indoor air pollution.
  • Ventilation – dilute and remove indoor air pollutants through HVAC systems.
  • Filtration – use filter systems to clean the air.

Two workers in hard hats are looking at an air duct that needs repairing to keep the indoor air clean.

How to improve an indoor ventilation system

OSHA recommends the following ways to improve indoor ventilation efficiency:

  • Service and clean the system regularly.

  • Ensure that outdoor air supply dampers and room air vents are open.

  • Remove or modify partitions or obstructions that block fresh airflow.

  • Rebalance the ventilation system to prevent inflow or outflow of contaminated air. This can occur due to differences in pressure between rooms.

  • Use room fans to improve mixing and dilution of pollutants.

Contact OSHA at 800-321-OSHA or visit osha.gov for more information on workplace indoor air quality issues or to request an inspection.

Black woman in office of salesman with phones on the table.

Tips for Employees to Improve Indoor Air Quality

Employees can work together with employers and building owners to address any indoor air quality problems. Some tips include:

  • Don’t block air ducts, air vents or grilles. This affects air circulation and may prevent HVAC systems from working properly.
  • Follow smoking policies at your office building. If you smoke, do so only in designated areas. Keep away from these designated areas to avoid secondhand smoke. If people are not following policies, or the policy is not effective, notify management.
  • Watch for water issues that could lead to mold growth. Clean up spills quickly. Notify maintenance of any leaks and mold.
  • Dispose of your trash. Trash attracts critters, as well as bacteria that can lead to health problems. Get rid of trash in designated areas only.
  • Store your food properly in containers. Use office refrigerators and take home your containers so that the fridge can be cleaned easily.
  • Talk with co-workers if your breathing worsens as a reaction to perfumes. Ask them politely if they would wear no or less perfume.

Certain jobs may expose you to a lot of indoor air pollutants. These jobs could be a fast-food worker, housekeeper, janitor, construction worker, or another job with exposure to fumes, chemicals, and particles. Your doctor may advise you to wear a mask at work to minimize exposure to indoor air pollution.

Reviewed by:
William E. Berger, MD, FACAAI, is a board-certified allergist and immunologist who serves as a media spokesperson and Chair of the Medical Advisory Council for Allergy & Asthma Network. He is a Distinguished Fellow and Past President (2002-03) of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).