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All this hot, humid and smoggy air outside… but what about indoor air quality?

smog2The last few days have been quite hot and muggy. Those without air conditioning at home are especially grateful that they can retreat inside their air-conditioned workplaces for at least most of the day; but what is the air quality inside these areas?

Employees spend a lot of time inside their workplaces, and have no choice but to breathe the air. Most take for granted that they are even breathing. However, whether it’s an office, warehouse, store or construction area, poor air quality unquestionably causes health problems.

Poor air quality can cause and exacerbate numerous health problems, such as allergies, asthma, lung cancer, respiratory infections, irritation and inflammation of the ears, nose and throat, sinus problems, and various other ailments. It may be that only the most sensitive employees or a group of employees can detect poor air quality initially, but that only means there are strong indicators that there is a problem and all employees are at risk of experiencing health problems.

Not only is this bad for the employees, but it is also a negative for the employer. Employees’ health problems due to poor air quality in the workplace can cause:

  • An increase to the employer’s costs to maintain its health care insurance package due to increased illness
  • Decreased worker productivity due to absenteeism or poor concentration
  • Low workplace morale
  • Increased workplace stress
  • Decreased workplace attachment

So what can employers do to make sure that their workplaces have good air quality?

This issue is actually a bit complicated; indoor air quality is the product of interactions among buildings, building systems and people. It may be difficult to control some of these factors.

Yet under health and safety legislation in all jurisdictions, employers have a general duty to do what is necessary to ensure the safety of their workers. This means employers should make sure the workplace has acceptable air quality. This is accomplished by testing the air quality and confirming the air meets applicable standards. Permissible levels of airborne toxic substances are set out in health and safety legislation. Employers must also ensure their employees do not do things to aggravate the problem and worsen the air quality.

Employers are recommended to:

  • Before starting operations, determine what engineering controls are necessary to prevent problems with the atmosphere; consult all applicable health and safety standards and requirements before beginning.
  • During operations, be aware of any fumes, odours or substances that may require immediate action to improve the air quality.
  • Use proper ventilation techniques whenever hazardous chemicals are used or foreign substances are present.
  • Ensure that, if necessary, workers wear respirators for adequate protection.
  • Comply with applicable smoke-free legislation.
  • Train all workers about safe air quality.
  • Have policies in place that limit employee use of chemicals that worsen air quality, such as a scent-free policy.

I’m wondering: has your company ever had to test the air due to employee complaints of illness as a result of poor air quality? If so, what was done to rectify the situation?

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Assistant Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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