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Sick Building Syndrome

WWJ_43_April_12_Hi_ResWith poor air quality an inevitability in offices, it’s essential that ventilation within a building is good, to ensure occupants are at least free of the fumes once inside. Steven Booth, associate director for Guardian Water Treatment, explains the importance of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in the combat against Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

Inner city air quality has been in the spotlight recently, with high levels of pollution meaning new guidelines for where schools and hospitals can be built and poor air quality blamed for a range of respiratory problems. While existing buildings can do little about their location, the air breathed inside can be improved, with good ventilation systems that are properly maintained.

Where air quality isn’t prioritised, properties can fall foul of SBS, which results in occupants displaying a range of unwanted symptoms, including dry or itchy skin, eyes, noses or throats, headaches, lethargy and poor concentration. For employers, having a ‘sick’ building can result in a loss of earnings, due to less productive staff and higher chances of days off for ill health. For hospitals in particular, SBS is a real problem that will exacerbate the existing ailments of patients.

Despite the potential effect on a businesses’ bottom line, it seems that many building managers and employers ignore the signs. According to a recent survey, 44 per cent of employees said that their employers did not appear to show any interest in internal air quality, with 73 per cent stating the quality of air in a building has an impact on how they feel.

UK buildings are becoming increasingly air tight, which means a reduction in ‘natural’ ventilation, and, as mentioned, where this air is being drawn in from smog filled inner cities, its quality is questionable. Good filtration and control of Air Handling Units will improve the situation, but if these systems are not maintained and kept clean, their effectiveness will be compromised, with lack of efficiency also meaning increased energy bills and a higher risk of breakdown.

Poor air quality is not the only cause of SBS, it is usually the cumulative result of a range of problems. Other factors building and facilities managers need to be aware of include a general lack of cleanliness, poor workspace layout, lack of natural light and employees unable to control their own environment.

A properly functioning ventilation system should deliver air of a suitable quality in a sufficient quantity in order to create a healthy and comfortable internal space. Airborne pollutants should be diluted and removed, including odours, fumes and dust. Temperature and humidity must be comfortable, with stagnation and draughts prevented. Where natural ventilation is not an option, a mechanical system will be required.


  • A minimum fresh-air flow of eight litres per second per person.
  • An area with an air flow velocity in excess of 0.25 to 0.35 metres per second should be considered as draughty.
  • An area with an air flow velocity of 0.1 metres per second is stagnant.
  • Unless temperatures are extreme, air velocities should normally be in the region of 0.1 to 0.15 metres per second and 0.25 metres during the summer.
  • Rooms housing office machinery should have separate extract ventilation.
  • Air inlets for the ventilation system should be sited to avoid introducing pollution from outside the building.

Where problems are identified, the temptation may be to just turn up the ventilation rate. This is not always the best solution and it is important to identify what is causing poor IAQ issues. IAQ monitoring, which measures a range of things, including dust, pathogens and carbon monoxide levels, will help building managers to identify and deal with specific problems.

IAQ monitoring can also help building owners comply with COSHH Air Quality Regulations. Healthcare premises have their own set of guidelines, covered by HTM 03 01: Specialised Ventilation for Healthcare Premises, including:

All ventilation plant should meet a minimum requirement in terms of the control of Legionella and safe access for inspection and maintenance.

All ventilation plants should be inspected annually.

The performance of all critical ventilation systems (such as those servicing operating theatres) should be verified annually.

The plant must not contain any material or substance that could support the growth of microorganism.

As with all HVAC equipment and general machinery, Planned Preventative Maintenance is the best approach; leaving things till a problem arises will more than likely incur costly repairs and potentially risk the health and well-being of building occupants.


Sick building syndrome (SBS) describes a range of symptoms thought to be linked to spending time in a certain building, most often a workplace, but no specific cause can be found.


  • headaches and dizziness
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • aches and pains
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • poor concentration
  • shortness of breath or chest tightness
  • eye and throat irritation
  • irritated, blocked or runny nose
  • skin irritation (skin rashes, dry itchy skin)


Anyone can be affected by SBS, but office workers in modern buildings without opening windows and with mechanical ventilation or air conditioning systems are most at risk. The likelihood of experiencing SBS symptoms can be higher if you’re employed in routine work that involves using display screen equipment.


  • Adequate ventilation, including open windows and by mechanical means
  • Clean, dust and pollution-free environment
  • Comfortable, constant temperature
  • Good lighting, natural where possible, with glare and flicker avoided
  • Maintaining good staff morale and reducing stress


  • Check the general cleanliness of the building, including checking that the vacuum cleaners are working properly and are regularly emptied and their filters are clean.
  • Check that cleaning materials are being used properly and stored correctly.
  • Check the operation of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. In particular, the system that supplies fresh air should be checked.
  • Check the condition and cleanliness of air filters, humidifiers, de-humidifiers and cooling towers. The HSE recommends humidity of 40-70 per cent should be maintained in office environments.
  • Check heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system maintenance schedules. Make sure they’re being followed properly.

About Sarah OBeirne

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