The term Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) should firstly be broken into two parts in order to best understand it, said Leigh-Anne Parsons National Emergency Medical Service manager for Life Employee Healthcare Solutions.
“Sick Building is a building or office in which people work for an extended number of hours who display illness that can be or are attributed to airborne building contaminants.”
She said a number of factors can also contribute to making the building “sick”, and the fall under the three categories, namely: ergonomics, work environment issues, and psychological factors.
“Syndrome is a set of physical signs and symptoms that a person may experience and may correlate with one or more diseases. In other words, it could be nonspecific physical symptoms, making it hard to diagnose,” said Parsons.
Here’s a more in depth look at some of the different causes of sick building syndrome, broken down under the respective categories.
- Workstation design
- Work space
- Light or sun glare on computer screens
Work environment issues
- Pollutants (can enter from outside like exhaust fumes, ceilings in old buildings made of asbestos, printers and copiers, etc.).
- Biological contaminants (mold, bacteria, viruses, fungus, bird or animal droppings, etc.).
- Indoor air quality (i.e. air-conditioning that is not serviced or not frequently serviced, leading to dirty and contaminated filters, stagnant water, etc.).
- Workplace or office in which no fresh air enters the building (inadequate ventilation).
- Workplace or office in which no natural light enters the workspace.
- Psychological factors are often seen as contributory factors and not the main cause of SBS. Factors include:
- Unsafe work environments where employees might fear for their safety, which leads to stress. For example, lifts that do not work or constantly break, emergency exits that are obstructed or locked. Frequent incidents, where people are injured or near-misses.
- Poor interpersonal relationships and communication.
- Excessive work or dissatisfaction with work.
“If a number of people, working or living in the same physical environment / area, have the same or similar symptoms than each other, then Sick Building Syndrome should be suspected. Symptoms are usually chronic and can affect multiple body systems,” said Parsons.
Some examples of symptoms include; sinusitis, coughing, increased incidence of asthma attacks, headaches, eye discomfort or irritation, fatigue, flu-like symptoms (non-seasonal related), allergies, skin disorders.
“Building risk assessments should be undertaken by Safety Specialists and Hygienists, where there is a suspicion of SBS. Risk assessments should include, a physical walkthrough looking for mold, dust, dirt and building conditions, physically assessment of air ducts; and testing of noise levels, doing air sampling and movement, sampling for specific contaminants, measuring of temperature, CO, relative humidity, lighting,” said Parsons.
She said correcting any abnormal findings should take place in order to “treat” SBS.
“Causes, rather than symptoms, should be treated, through preventative maintenance, effective facilities management and applying Legislative requirements to ensure the health and safety of employees and / or building occupants. Education and communication are also very important to ensure building owners, building management, maintenance personnel and occupants are aware of the causes, consequences and preventative techniques / actions, said Parsons.