How to fight sick building syndrome

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Over the past thirty years, we have seen an increase in employees working in buildings and complaining of various ailments. Among these disturbances: fatigue, loss of concentration, respiratory problems, asthma, irritation of the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, throat) or skin irritations. This set of ailments is grouped under the English term “Sick building syndrome” or “Sick building syndrome”. According to the WHO, 30% of buildings in the world present this syndrome.

Symptoms underlying sick building syndrome are often caused by low concentrations of pollutants in the air of the workplace. These pollutants can be organic solvents emanating from paints, glues or other furniture components (carpets, chipboard). Or even bioaerosols such as micro-organisms, dust mites, animal hair, fungi developing in porous materials.

We must also be aware of the existence of other important forms of indoor pollution which constitute a real public health problem. This is the case, for example, of carcinogenic asbestos, the dust of which can be found in the air of the workplace following the crumbling (due to wear or maintenance work) of certain materials. Another source of illness is Legionella, a bacterium that thrives in standing water in poorly maintained air conditioning systems and can cause legionellosis, which can be fatal. We can also mention radon, a natural, odourless, colorless and radioactive gas. This gas naturally emanates from earth rocks (natural soil and building materials) and causes lung cancer.

However, fatigue, headaches, allergies or irritations are not always related only to the building. It is also necessary to take into account working conditions (including stress, professional and salary status) and psychosocial aspects (social climate, constraints, conflicts), as well as individual characteristics (predisposition to allergies, asthma, eczema), which may also partly cause these symptoms. This is why it is often difficult to establish a clear and definitive diagnosis.

But there are effective technical or organizational measures to combat sick building syndrome. Here are a few tips:

Improved air quality. Guaranteeing a healthy workspace for your employees begins with improving air quality. Several options are possible:

Partition off the area reserved for smokers. To protect non-smokers against the adverse effects of smoke on the body and against the inconvenience caused by passive smoke, it is important to provide a delimited and partitioned smoking area. In addition, it is essential to ensure sufficient air renewal in this smoking area.

Improve the ventilation of the premises. Ventilation is the process, natural or mechanical, which makes it possible to supply a room with fresh air and to evacuate the stale air. The more effective the ventilation (air change rate, purity of the air introduced), the lower the concentration of impurities in the air of the workplace.

Carry out regular maintenance (at least once a year) of the air conditioning systems, in order to clean and disinfect the systems and thus avoid contamination of the water by micro-organisms. The most frequent problems arise in June, when the cooling systems are restored to working order.

Replace a carpet with linoleum to fight against dust and allergenic dust mites. Indeed, rugs, carpets and curtains constitute an environment favorable to the accumulation of dust and thus to the proliferation of dust mites.

General work organization. In addition to the care taken with the infrastructure, the general organization of work offers several other interesting options:

Write clear procedures. “Work stress” is a factor clearly linked to the symptoms of sick building syndrome; the vagueness of roles, tasks and responsibilities is one cause. This is why the drafting of specifications or other clear work procedures can have a positive effect on the well-being of employees.

Rearrange workplaces. The analysis of workstations and the optimal layout of spaces, taking into account in particular the position of the body, the position of the computer screen in relation to the operator, the lighting, the type of furniture or the nature of the activities contributes to guaranteeing an appropriate working environment, which makes it possible to limit certain damage to health at work.

Thus, the elimination of chemical and biological agents polluting the air in the workplace is an essential step in ensuring the well-being of employees, but it is important not to neglect the organizational and psychosocial aspects. Sick building syndrome being a non-specific pathology, most of the time it is a matter of improving work situations as a whole.

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