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What are the rules about indoor air quality in workplaces?

Marie Bannister
March 22, 2021

The essential roundup of indoor air quality legislation, regulations, and guidelines for workplaces including office buildings, schools, and other educational centers.

As governments increasingly switch their attention from outdoor air to indoor air, organizations are being asked to keep up with an expanding range of laws, regulations, and guidelines. 

To help you get ahead of the regulators, let’s take a detailed look at the existing state of play in this rapidly developing area, and looking at the rules that are likely to be introduced in the future.

A growing trend for regulation

 

We spend up to 90% of our time indoors, so the quality of air where we work, study, and relax has a profound impact on health and wellbeing1. For that reason, the public health spotlight is focusing keenly on the effects of indoor air.

There is already a range of laws, regulations, and guidelines in place for indoor air quality in the workplace. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) is among the international bodies studying this issue and urging states to act in line with its recommendations2.

While some aspects of indoor air quality in workplaces are already heavily regulated, others are developing as governments around the world implement action plans. That means it’s the perfect time to get familiar with the regulations as they stand, and stay ahead of the growing trend toward more rules. 

Why is indoor air quality regulation in workplaces coming into focus?

 

 

We’re gaining a greater understanding of how indoor air quality affects our health, and at the same time there is mounting evidence to show that it significantly impacts how well we work and learn.

The WHO attributes 3% of the global burden of disease to poor quality indoor air,while the State of Global Air Survey estimates that ambient and indoor air pollutants cut up to 2 and a half years from average life expectancy4. Concentrations of the contaminants that cause health problems can be up to five times higher indoors than outdoors5.

Key indoor pollutants:What-are-the-rules-about-indoor-air-quality-in-workplaces-Inserts-2

  1. Carbon dioxide:
    High concentrations cause headaches, drowsiness, and poor performance6.
  2. Radon:
    A colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that is the biggest cause of lung cancer among non-smokers7.
  3. Airborne chemicals (VOCs):
    Volatile organic compounds can be emitted by paints, solvents, cleaning products, carpets, and furniture. They contribute to respiratory illnesses and irritate eyes, ears, nose, and throat8.

These pollutants, and conditions like humidity, temperature, and air pressure, affect our health. They also determine how we feel and perform in work or educational environments.

There is clear evidence that improved indoor air quality in workplaces and schools boosts the performance of employees and students. Better air has been shown to lead to higher decision-making scores that give a productivity gain of $17,000 per employee per year9, as well as contributing to a 58% fall in sick leave10.

In schools, studies suggest 'compelling evidence of increased student performance with increased ventilation rates'11 and higher concentrations of CO2 are linked to poorer test scores12.

It’s becoming a necessity to prioritize indoor air quality, thanks to the regulators, but the benefits for businesses and educators are clear too.

What are the rules on indoor air quality in the workplace?

 

The WHO recommends that countries use its indoor air quality guidelines, ‘as a scientific basis for legally enforceable standards’. Its documents cover biological indoor pollutants like dampness and mold, as well as chemical contaminants, including radon and VOCs13. Across the world, health authorities have been responding with their own laws and guidelines. 

North America

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets threshold limits for common pollutants, as established by various representative bodies. 

The National Radon Action Plan recommends that levels of radon should not exceed 4 pCi/L (148 Bq/m3), but the precise rules vary between different states15.

There are limits for exposure to the most common VOCs. Formaldehyde, which is emitted from furniture, cooking, and other sources, is limited to 0.1ppm time-weighted average or 0.3ppm short-term exposure.16

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that the range of temperatures for indoor workplaces should be 68-76oF (20-24°C), while humidity should lie between 20% and 60%17. It determines a minimum amount of light for various working conditions, ranging between 5 and 30 ‘foot candles’, which equate to 10.764 lux18.

Europe  

The EU’s Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER), advocates regulating indoor air pollution as rigorously as outdoor air19. The UK empowers local authorities to intervene where threats to indoor air quality exist20.

The EU’s workplace exposure limit for CO2 is an average of 5000ppm for an 8-hour period, or 15,000ppm short-term exposure (15 minutes)21.

The EU’s Basic Safety Standards directive on radon requires member states to ensure that indoor concentrations of radon do not exceed 8 pCi/L (300 Bq/m3)22. The UK’s National Radon Action Plan requires employers to act when radon levels are above these limits23. In Germany, businesses in states where readings could be high must measure radon levels24

Norway’s ‘action limit’ for all buildings, including commercial properties, is 2.7pCi/L (100 Bq/m3), while its legal maximum is 5.4 pCi/L (200 Bq/m3) of radon25.

The UK recommends that temperatures in the workplace should be at least 16oC, dropping to 13oC for vigorous work26.    

What are the indoor air quality regulations in offices?

 

Many of the rules for indoor air quality in offices are the same as for workplaces in general, but there are some extra things you may wish to bear in mind. 

North America

OSHA notes that building operations and routine maintenance are critical to ensuring healthy indoor air quality. Furthermore,  employees who are in contact with cleaning chemicals may need particular protection27.

The EPA recommends that close attention is paid to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems28. It is required to perform radon assessments where people work, in order to assess the health implications and determine measures to reduce or deal with radon29.

Europe

Many of the key regulations for offices are the same as those for other indoor workplaces. It’s important to remember, though, that the minimum temperature levels, for instance, will be higher in environments where employees are not typically performing vigorous work30.

Interestingly, other pollutants have been highlighted by the EU, including airborne chemicals VOCs, ozone and particulate matter, which are particularly prevalent in office environments31.

What are the indoor air quality regulations in schools?

 

Many public health agencies have recommendations to improve indoor air quality in schools. They promote action from maintaining cleanliness to proper ventilation32. Some of the rigorous regulations are being introduced with regards to radon.

In the US, specific legislation is enacted at state level, but the EPA recommends frequent testing, particularly during cooler months, when ventilation is more difficult33. They have published a useful framework that you can use to manage any issues that might arise34.

The UK advice reiterates the workplace limits of 300 Bq/m3 in any location. The government urges schools to ‘put monitors in ground floor rooms and in regularly used, accessible basements’’35

Norway’s plan for schools and kindergartens is based on the action limit of 100 Bq/m3. The average value is to be calculated over at least 2 months in the winter. Alternatively, radon can be monitored over the course of a year.

It’s worth remembering that high concentrations of CO2 are considered detrimental to children’s test scores. ASHRAE recommends that indoor levels should not exceed 1,100ppm36.

Find out how schools and colleges can Control CO2 to boost learning & improve cost-efficiency ➜ 
 

Now is the time to get ahead on indoor air quality in the workplace

 

In workplaces, offices, and schools, the regulators are either implementing rules for indoor air quality, or they’re working hard to develop guidelines and legislation that enforce cleaner, healthier air. 

Rather than playing catch-up and limiting the damage, it’s now time for businesses and educators to prioritize indoor air quality, both to comply with existing laws and to get ahead of future regulations. Doing so will provide a healthier, safer, and more productive environment for working and learning.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • There are already laws, regulations, and guidelines to govern indoor air quality in workplaces, and regulators are devising more. 
  • We’re gaining an ever greater understanding of how indoor air quality affects our health, and there is mounting evidence to show that it significantly impacts how well we work and learn.
  • The WHO has issued guidelines that it sees as a template for regulation, while the EU is moving to develop laws for indoor air similar in scale for those for outdoor pollution.
  • It’s a great time for businesses and educators to prioritize indoor air quality, to comply with existing regulations and get ahead of future legislation.

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