8 Things You Should Know About IAQ

July 25, 2023

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) currently has no federal indoor air quality (IAQ) standards, but it does provide guidelines about the most common IAQ workplace complaints. Based on OSHA’s most common concerns revolving around acknowledging and counter-acting poor IAQ conditions, here are eight things that every employer and employee should know to maintain proper IAQ.

  • IAQ, also called “indoor environmental quality,” describes how inside air can affect a person’s health, comfort, and ability to work. It can include temperature, humidity, lack of outside air (poor ventilation), mold from water damage, or exposure to other chemicals.
  • The qualities of good IAQ should include comfortable temperature and humidity, adequate supply of fresh outdoor air, and control of pollutants from inside and outside of the building.

  • The most common causes of IAQ problems in buildings are

    • Poor upkeep of ventilation, heating, and air conditioning systems
    • Dampness and moisture damage due to leaks, flooding, or high humidity
    • Occupant activities, such as construction or remodeling
    • Indoor and outdoor contaminated air
    • Not enough ventilation, lack of fresh outdoor air, or contaminated air being brought into the building.
  • People working in buildings with poor IAQ may notice unpleasant or musty odors or may feel that the building is hot and stuffy. Some building occupants may complain about symptoms that happen at work and go away when they leave work, like having headaches or feeling tired. Fever, cough, and shortness of breath can be symptoms of a more serious problem. Asthma and some causes of pneumonia have also been linked to IAQ problems. However, not all exposures cause symptoms, so there is no substitute for good building management.

  • There is no single test to find an IAQ problem. Employers should check measurements of temperature, humidity, and air flow. In addition, inspection and testing of the ventilation, heating, and air conditioning systems should be performed to make sure it is working according to specifications for building use and occupancy. A building walk-through to check for odors, water damage, leaks, dirt, or pest droppings may be helpful. Standing water in humidifiers and air conditioning units can become contaminated with bacteria or fungi and need to be eliminated. In some circumstances, specific testing for radon or for asbestos may be required as part of building occupancy. For instance, in schools asbestos needs to be checked every three years and re-inspected every six months under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA).
  • Employers are required to follow the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act of 1970, which requires them to provide workers with a safe workplace that does not have any known hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious injury. The OSH Act also requires employers to obey occupational safety and health standards created under it. Employers should be reasonably aware of the possible sources of poor air quality, and they should have the resources necessary to recognize and control workplace hazards. It is also their responsibility to inform employees of the immediate dangers that are present. Specific state and local regulations may apply.

  • The following questions can help a doctor or an employer determine if there is an IAQ problem at your workplace:

    • Do you have symptoms that just occur at work and go away when you get home? What are these symptoms?
    • Are these symptoms related to a certain time of day, a certain season, or certain location at work?
    • Did the symptoms start when something new happened at work, such as renovation or construction projects?
    • Are there other people at work with similar complaints?
    • Did you already see a doctor for your symptoms, and if so, did the doctor diagnose an illness related to IAQ?
  • If you are concerned about air quality at work, be sure to check the ventilation, heating, and air conditioning systems and to make sure there is no water damage. If you think that you have symptoms that might be related to IAQ at your work, talk to your doctor to see if they could be caused by indoor air pollution.

Under the OSH Act, employees have the right to contact an OSHA office. Workers who would like a workplace inspection should send a written request and can tell OSHA not to let their employer know who filed the complaint. It is a violation of the OSH Act for an employer to fire, demote, transfer, or discriminate in any way against a worker for filing a complaint or using other OSHA rights. States with OSHA-approved state plans provide the same protections to workers as federal OSHA, though they may follow different complaint processing procedures.

Employees can also request a Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). At no cost to employers or workers, NIOSH may investigate workplace health hazards in response to requests from employers, employees and their representatives, and federal agencies.

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