San Diego Business Journal

God's name may be used in offices more often this time of year than any other, but not necessarily because it's the holidays.

Stale and stagnant air typically has co-workers blessing each other right and left.

Constant sneezing and sniffling are among symptoms collectively known as "sick building syndrome," a term coined as early as the 1970s for discomfort that stems from being in a building with poor indoor air quality.

Others can include headache, eye, nose or throat irritation, dry cough, dry or itchy skin, dizziness, nausea, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and sensitivity to odors.

Between 10 percent and 20 percent of complaints received by the San Diego office of California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or Cal-OSHA, are related to indoor air quality concerns, said District Manager Luis Mireles.

"Even if a fan breaks and there is more carbon dioxide buildup in one area of the office, it can make workers tired," Mireles said.

Sick building syndrome reduces worker productivity and can increase absenteeism, according to several sources, including the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Health Center, a division of the Washington, D.C.-based National Safety Council. The Environmental Protection Agency also adds deteriorating employee morale to the list.

Although the exact cause of sick building syndrome has not been identified, the EPA says likely culprits include substandard heating and cooling systems, mold, chemicals from machines and products like glue, as well as pollutants from new carpet or paint.

U.S. companies can collectively save $30 billion to $150 billion annually, according to the Department of Energy, if they improved their indoor air quality.

Inspecting The Vents

California law requires that heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, known as HVAC, be inspected at least annually, and that records of the inspections be available at request of employees within 48 hours.

To ensure turnover of air, the HVAC systems are required to be on continuously during working hours with few exceptions.

Joe Leone, the president of Environmental Sampling Professionals, which tests commercial and residential air quality in 44 locations across the country, including San Diego, said problems here appear to be no worse than the rest of the United States. However, he said properties near large bodies of water can be more susceptible to mold.

"Homes and businesses near the ocean are going to have higher humidity levels," Leone said. "But the awareness is growing because people understand the effects of molds and allergens now."

Still, Mireles' office sees around 100 complaints a year about indoor air quality.

He said heavy rains early this year led to a spike in complaints related to mold.

Mireles said it's important for a firm's management to communicate with landlords and building managers to spot problems.

"The responsibility is to track symptoms and concerns of employees, and managers have the responsibility to report it to a landlord or manager right away," Mireles said. "The government agency shouldn't be the first button they call."

He said there are other helpful resources to try first. For example, the California Department of Industrial Relations' Web site, www.dir.ca.gov, offers consultation services. The EPA also offers free software that allows users to conduct an audit of indoor air quality. It is available for download at www.epa.gov/iaq/largebldgs/ibeam_page.htm.

Still, the California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973 gives workers the right to file a complaint about workplace safety and health hazards. San Diego-area companies would do that through Mireles' office, which can be reached at (619) 767-2280.

Craig Woods, architect for HDR construction and president of the San Diego chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, said there are processes that new businesses can put into place to prevent poor air quality in the first place.

Along with improved HVAC filters, businesses can, for example, customize workspaces to allow for individual room temperature controls. A raised floor in which the ventilation system is built gives each employee his or her own vent to adjust as they like, Woods said.

Big Losses

According to the Green Building Council, companies lose $29 billion to $168 billion in productivity each year nationally by not choosing to build green.

"We know that by designing smart, we save money, operating expenses are reduced, there is a higher satisfaction of workers, they work harder and absenteeism is reduced," Woods said. "From a business standpoint, it's just smart. It's not just pie-in-the-sky technology."

In the 1980s, a World Health Organization report revealed that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive indoor air quality complaints, according to the Ohio-based Healthy Building Institute of America.

Industry experts say new carpet and paint can release chemicals into the air, so new buildings should be aired out well.

"Windows in large commercial towers do not open," Mireles said. "If they don't air that out, there could be concerns in the building , old or new."