A Breath of Fresh Air
Keeping workplace air quality in tip top shape
By Bailey Berg

ith the development of COVID-19, a disease that thrives in and spreads easily through indoor areas, it has become increasingly important for workplaces to provide their workers with good air quality.

Nortech Environmental & Engineering and EHS-Alaska Inc. are just two Alaska businesses working hand-in-hand with their clients to make sure indoor spaces are clean, fresh, and—most importantly—safe for employees to breathe for eight (or more) hours a day.

Inconvenient or Problematic?

Peter Beardsley, principal-in-charge at Nortech, says businesses usually reach out to Nortech when there is already a noticeable problem.

“Generally, where we get involved is when something breaks and nobody can figure out what the issue is,” Beardsley says. “When we get involved, it’s usually because there’s extreme occupant dissatisfaction with the air at the workplace.”

Beardsley adds that “extreme occupant dissatisfaction” is more often reported in office buildings; unlike in known hazardous or high risk working environments, many owners or operators may not consider the quality of air in a traditional office space until there is a noticeable problem.

“People can recognize the hazards when they walk into a welding shop because, you know, there’s soot in the air, and it smells and tastes funny, and nobody would really question why there are OSHA standards to protect those workers,” Beardsley says. “Often when you walk into an office environment, you don’t really think about OSHA because there doesn’t seem to be anything obvious that’s detrimental to your safety as an occupant.”

Workplace air quality problems fall along a vast sliding scale. On the low-risk end but still a frequent nuisance are unpleasant odors. Usually a relatively simple problem to solve.

But air conditions can be higher risk: poor air quality can exacerbate underlying health problems. It can even trigger what is known as Sick Building Syndrome in which building inhabitants become ill or are infected with a chronic disease.

Identifying the Source

Martin Schwan is an industrial hygienist and project manager with EHS-Alaska Incorporated and serves on the technical committee for the Indoor Air Quality Association. When he assesses the air quality of a business for the first time, he often starts with a worker log.

“Those logs tell me a lot,” Schwan says. “For instance, if workers say they get itchy throats first thing in the morning, it could be because they work somewhere where the ventilation system does nighttime setbacks, so there’s no moving air. And, if you do have contaminants, that tends to build up their concentration, so when it kicks on in the morning it starts diluting those contaminants.”

Knowing detailed specifics about a complaint—whether it’s an odor or chemical offense, the time of day it occurs, how long it lasts—allows him to look for trends.

Beardsley agrees: “If there’s a number of employees that can basically corroborate each other, that gives us a really good starting point.”

From there, air quality experts conduct a series of tests to zero in on the factors that could cause the specific issues being investigated.

Three screening tools are commonly used: One is an instrument that measures volatile organic compounds in the parts per billion range. “That’s not something you can necessarily smell, but they’re everywhere,” Beardsley says. “They occur in the natural environment, they’re in air fresheners, they’re in gasoline.”

Another tool is colloquially called an indoor air quality meter, but it measures oxygen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, temperate, and relative humidity. Their levels can be indicators of a host of issues.

The final tool is called an ultra-fine meter, which measures very fine particulates, with a focus on incomplete combustion.

“There are some really nice systems that are being implemented into the design of new buildings that allow for continuous monitoring, and you can actually, remotely, change your settings to remove contaminants as you start to see those levels build up.”
Martin Schwan, Industrial Hygienist, EHS-Alaska

Depending on what region of Alaska they’re working in, they’ll often perform additional testing, taking into consideration the city’s environment. Juneau, for instance, has more moisture issues than Anchorage and Anchorage has more problems with adjacent buildings, like asphalt plants, than remote areas.

Beardsley says most organizations follow guidance set forth by three government groups to determine if a building meets safety standards: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).

During an air quality evaluation, the assessors will use OSHA, NIOSH, and ACGIH as the basis for their recommendations, which are outlined in a report given to the property manager.

Solutions vary as much as problems; while sometimes the culprit is an old system or a repurposed warehouse or industrial space that lacks a proper ventilation system, Schwan says, companies simply don’t do enough to maintain and regularly replace their air filters. Something as seemingly mundane as a birch or cottonwood tree bloom can clog the filters, preventing them from doing their job and causing (often literal) headaches down the road.

The Importance of Clean Air

It’s easy to overlook an old air filter; modern living is getting more complex by the day and, as the old saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind”—but Schwan and Beardsley agree that switching out an old filter for a fresh one can have a significant impact on employee health and happiness.

Schwan says it’s rare that a company contacts EHS-Alaska preemptively, but he anticipates that in the wake of COVID-19 more companies are likely to conduct air system maintenance.

In the coming years, one of the new “perks” of a workplace might be a state-of-the-art ventilation system capable of easily purifying the air based on the building’s specific air quality needs.

“There are some really nice systems that are being implemented into the design of new buildings that allow for continuous monitoring, and you can actually, remotely, change your settings to remove contaminants as you start to see those levels build up,” Schwan says. “Some of the new smart technology is incredible, and, considering the cost is getting lower, there are big benefits in integrating those.”

In the meantime, there are effective methods to improve and maintain workplace air quality.

Beyond setting up procedures to regularly check and replace air filters, building managers should keep in mind that indoor air quality is affected by the number of people in the room. Even before COVID-19 and the concept of social distancing became entrenched in our daily lives, experts recommended keeping a room below capacity and spreading out.

“The more people that are in a room, the more CO2 builds up,” Beardsley says. “Conference rooms usually weren’t built to be at full occupancy for very long—they’re just not well ventilated. Too much CO2 makes people sleepy, which isn’t great for employee productivity.”

Constantly circulating fresh air is a solid goal for businesses, but it can be costly, especially within the 49th State. Bringing outdoor air inside necessitates prodigious amounts of energy to either heat up or cool down the air to a comfortable temperature, as well as to humidify or dehumidify it to make it easier to breathe.

Still, Beardsley says the efficiency gained by making employees comfortable far outweighs the cost.

“When we get involved, it’s usually because there’s extreme occupant dissatisfaction with the air at the workplace.”
Peter Beardsley, Principal-in-Charge, Nortech
“Think about it: you read about a new building in the newspaper and it costs tens of millions of dollars, but when you take the average salaries of the people working there, that’s way more than what the building is worth,” Beardsley says. “That efficiency gained in having your employees be comfortable is always the biggest bang for your dollar. By the time employees complain, they’re already mad, so office managers and building owners should absolutely spend more time making sure that their occupants are comfortable. It really makes for a better workplace for everyone.”