A small group of employees believe that they are suffering from Sick Building Syndrome and they want us to take steps to address the issue. First, how can we be sure that it is not just hay fever or a similar allergy and, second, what changes can we make to improve the workplace environment?
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a recognised problem but is notoriously difficult to diagnose as there is no single cause and the symptoms are similar to commonplace conditions such as colds and hay fever. Sufferers characteristically complain of dry throats, sore eyes, blocked or runny noses, headaches and fatigue. The condition is most often reported by people doing routine work in large open plan offices, where individuals have little control over their physical working environment. Many causes have been suggested, with poor indoor air quality being the most likely culprit.
Before investing in a costly survey of your building, you need to interview the employees to get a more detailed picture of the symptoms and note any common factors. The first question to ask is whether the symptoms go away once the worker leaves the building. If symptoms persist outside of the office at home, then SBS is unlikely to be the cause. You may be able to correlate reports of SBS with a high pollen count or viral infection in the local area.
If the symptoms only appear at work, then SBS is more likely. Find out whether the affected employees all work in the same part of the building and whether they are engaged in the same type of work. For workers doing routine, repetitive tasks, lack of job satisfaction may be a factor. Worker satisfaction can also be increased by simple measures such as ensuring a comfortable temperature and reducing noise by placing copiers or printers in an enclosed area.
SBS is also associated with display screen work — are the workstations set up properly so as to minimise glare and are the employees taking regular breaks from the screen?
Once these possible causes have been eliminated, you need to consider the working environment, and particularly air quality. Ask the employees to report on the ventilation — do they have any control over this, such as by opening windows? If the building is air-conditioned, check that the system is working properly and that there are no pockets of stagnant air around the sufferers’ workstations. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends a minimum fresh-air flow of 8 litres per second per person in no smoking areas and a flow rate of up to 32 litres per second per person where heavy tobacco smoking may occur.
Has the office recently been repainted or refurbished? Indoor pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from furniture or paint can contribute to SBS. Fortunately, the emissions from new furnishings should subside within a few months. Make sure that there are no obvious problems such as excessive tobacco smoke or accumulations of dirt, dust or litter due to inadequate cleaning. Check to see whether cleaning staff are using a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency filter. If cleaners come in first thing in the morning, they may be stirring up dust, so cleaning in the evening is preferable.
Poor lighting is also implicated in SBS and you should check whether employees are able to control lighting levels around their workstation by using blinds or individual light switches.
If the problem persists, you may need to call in experts such as occupational health professionals or building service engineers. The HSE has published a helpful guide to SBS which is available to download free of charge.
Last reviewed 11 November 2021