Although indoor air quality has always been important for employers who want to keep their workers healthy, comfortable, and productive, it’s taken on even greater importance during the coronavirus pandemic.

Unfortunately, for many business owners, balancing energy management with indoor environmental issues can present conflicting operational challenges, according to Gary Ritter and Milton Jacobs of Safety Solution Consultants Inc. of East Granby.

The perception of poor indoor air quality, accompanied by excessive dust build-up and varying or uncomfortable temperatures, can lead to complaints that are sometimes difficult to quantify.

The most common indoor complaints include improper temperature, the feeling that air is “stale,” and odors that smell “chemical like” from rodent infestations, and moisture-driven moldy odors, Ritter and Jacobs wrote in a recent blog post.

Best Practices

Jacobs, president of Safety Solutions, and Jim Wronkowski, its field supervisor and emergency medical technician, will discuss emergency preparedness amid the pandemic, offer advice and strategies, and share best practices March 18 at CBIA's 2021 Human Resources Conference

Jacobs and Ritter wrote that energy management is about maintaining proper temperature at a reasonable price.

Keeping all occupants satisfied is a difficult task for a building operator, and convincing occupants that the indoor environment is acceptable may require indoor air testing and assessment.

But before calling a qualified industrial hygiene company to assess your indoor environment, building managers should:

  • Maintain all mechanical systems, including filter change-out, and clean heating/cooling coils. Efficiency of heating/cooling coils is drastically reduced when they are dirty. Also, check fresh air and return air systems for proper operation. 
  • Recheck the balance of the system. Telltale signs that diffusers are blocked or redirected include wide temperature swings in the building or inconsistent airflow between diffusers.
  • Survey the occupants and determine if more than 10% complain of poor indoor air quality.
  • Observe the dust burden on surfaces and check custodial procedures. The recommended minimal filtration is MERV 13 (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) but before upgrading filters, determine if the system can handle these filters without damage. The higher the efficiency of the filters, the more stress it can put on mechanical systems.
  • Ensure that building water or moisture incursion is cleaned and incursion issue fixed as soon as possible—within 24 hours is preferred—to reduce the potential of mold growth.

Baseline Assessment

If problems persist it may be time to call a qualified industrial hygienist to assess the indoor environment.

This should start with a baseline assessment that includes measuring temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and dust levels.

Depending on the issues identified, more sophisticated sampling or investigation may be needed.

Fresh air percentages can be determined using temperature or carbon dioxide differential models.

Air flow can be measured at each diffuser and sources of indoor pollutants evaluated—such as printers, loading docks, outside sources. 

Sampling

Sampling should be performed to WELL or American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers standards. The WELL standard is an evidence-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring the building features that impact occupant health. 

Typically, the recommended fresh air supply should be 20 cfm/person in occupied spaces so the relative occupancy should be known. 

Buildings with persistent water issues may need to be evaluated for mold and there may be other impacts to the indoor environment that need to be assessed.

A thorough assessment will inspect these systems, test for air contaminants as needed, document conditions, and offer a report of findings with conclusions and recommendations.