Healthy Workplace - 5 Indoor Air Quality Myths
by Cameron Oliphant 14th August 2023
Tags: IAQ, ventilation, HVAC, energy demand reduction, occupant engagement
Technology and proactive management of Indoor Air Quality can actually help to improve energy efficiency and, as always, access to data is key. For example, continuous monitoring of carbon dioxide can enable HVAC ventilation to be eliminated during hours when the building or designated spaces are unoccupied. HVAC need only be used when required to ventilate occupied spaces, for certain periods, rather than wasteful continuous operation. This simple practice alone can achieve a significant reduction in energy demand.
Whilst it can be a challenge finding the optimal balance between good ventilation practice and minimal energy use, achieving this balance is informed by good data. Collecting data throughout a building can be used to inform decision-making, leading to efficient operation of all systems and better outcomes for energy efficiency.
The presence of common air pollutants can actually be up to 5 times higher inside than outside, even in the largest, industrialised cities, as highlighted by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency. Preventing outdoor pollutants requires an effective filtration system with continuous air quality monitoring to inform when maintenance or upgrade is required.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation point to additional common indoor threats including VOC off gassing from sources such as cleaning products, building materials, paints and chemicals given off by air fresheners.
Myth #3: The data might ‘make me look bad’
Data can sometimes be perceived as a risk and the ‘better not to know’ approach can prevent action being taken. However, the greater reputational threat may lie in failing to collect data and verify that good air quality is being provided for occupants.
Another common fear is that the data highlights issues that can’t easily be addressed. However, the reality is that most air quality issues are fixable and the solution is often simpler than might be imagined.
For businesses, there are benefits to making information on environmental conditions accessible by employees, for example via live displays in the office. Research demonstrates that individual perception of conditions does not always correlate with actual conditions and therefore information can be valuable. Employees are likely to be reassured by the appearance of IAQ sensors, digital displays and educational information – strong symbols that demonstrate that Indoor Air Quality matters to the employer.
Live displays showing metrics such as air quality, ventilation, temperature, humidity, light levels and sound levels encourage employee feedback. Building users can feel empowered by live data if it informs choices, for example when deciding which hot desk to select. Employees who feel engaged in the workplace environment are more likely to choose the workplace over home-working.
For these reasons, collecting and sharing data should be viewed very much as a positive initiative.
Myth #4: IAQ sensors are ‘nice to have’ but I’ve too many priorities
The World Health Organisation states that clean air is a basic human right i.e. air quality is essential rather than a ‘nice to have’. There is clearly a duty of care on building managers to ensure consistently good air quality. However, it is not possible to demonstrate this commitment without collecting data.
Furthermore, employers are becomingly increasingly aware of the economic benefits of creating a healthy workplace including higher productivity, attracting and retaining high-value employees, reducing absenteeism and promoting brand values that appeal to customers and investors. One of the issues in the past was trying to evaluate the financial impact of productivity gains but evidence is becoming more readily available. The 2017 publication by the British Council of Offices concluded that on average, productivity gains of around 2.7% (£1,900 – £2,200 per person per year) are possible by improving the workplace environment, including IAQ, ventilation and occupant comfort.
For schools and further education, in addition to the direct health benefits for children and students, the environment can have a significant impact on learning performance and academic outcomes.
Myth #5: IAQ sensors are too expensive
Accredited, commercial-grade IAQ monitors are accessible for most budgets. For example, IAQ monitoring for a small office should only represent an investment in the small hundreds. IAQ monitors should be plug and play with no ongoing maintenance or operational costs.
IAQ monitoring is the first essential step to creating a healthy workplace and when the benefits are considered, the potential return on investment should be highly attractive to most organisations. Sooner or later, the question is likely to become can you afford not to monitor the air quality in your building?
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