Almost everyone occasionally suffers common symptoms such as headaches, dry throat or sore eyes. But there are occasions when people in particular buildings experience these sorts of symptoms more often than is usual. Symptoms tend to increase in severity with the time spent in the building and improve over time or disappear when the person is away from the building. This is often described as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).
According to the NHS, Sick Building Syndrome is a phenomenon where workers in particular office environments complain that they are experiencing a range of non-specific symptoms. These may include:
Symptoms are generally mild, although they may affect personal performance and motivation, sometimes significantly. Sick Building Syndrome is not a recognised illness that can be diagnosed precisely. The symptoms usually resolve once the person who is experiencing them has left the building. Women are more likely to be affected by the symptoms of sick building syndrome than men.
There are many potential causes of Sick Building Syndrome, but in our experience, the cause is frequently pinned down to physical or environmental factors such as flaws in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, including the build up of biological contamination, including bacteria and mould. Other causative effects may include:
Job factors such as the variety and interest of particular jobs; people’s ability to control certain aspects of work and their working environment. Factors leading to sick building syndrome may include:
Building and office design
Building services and maintenance
Indoor environment and air quality
Due to the causes of sick building syndrome being complex and largely unknown, it is not possible to identify generally applicable measures that might be taken which will prevent, eliminate or reduce sick building syndrome. What may work in one building may not work in another.
Investigations will be most cost-effective however if it is determined whether the symptoms are local to a part of a building or widespread and if checks start with the most likely sources of the problem.
Staff should be involved at an early stage. Procedures and working practices should be checked to ensure the proper operation and maintenance of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The general cleanliness of the interior of the building and furnishings should also be assessed.
Booklet HS(G)132 – How to deal with Sick Building Syndrome provides detailed advice on minimising risk in the main problem areas associated with SBS. If, in spite of all your efforts, symptoms persist, you may need to call in expert professional advice from the following:
To be cost effective, remedial action will need to strike a balance between the cost of any change and the effect the change is likely to have in reducing symptoms.
STRAIGHTFORWARD ACTIONS WHICH CAN BE CARRIED OUT AT REASONABLE COST AND EFFORT SHOULD BE GIVEN PRIORITY.
1. Do you ensure that the following factors are considered when creating and maintaining a good work environment:
|air quality (including ventilation, outdoor air supply and air movement)||YES / NO|
|temperature (approximately 19-20ºC in offices)||YES / NO|
|lighting||YES / NO|
|noise (minimise intensity)||YES / NO|
|new office equipment and furnishings||YES / NO|
|maintenance of the building and building services systems||YES / NO|
|cleaning||YES / NO|
|job factors (management systems and work organisation)||YES / NO|
2. If SBS is suspected in your premises, would you follow a step-by-step approach to investigation?
|Look for the obvious (e.g. local ‘flu epidemic)||YES / NO|
|Check the symptoms (e.g. review staff sickness absence records)||YES / NO|
|Involve the staff (e.g. canvass their views)||YES / NO|
|Check procedures and working practices||YES / NO|
Booklet HS(G)132 – How to deal with Sick Building Syndrome. Guidance for employers, building owners and building managers (HSE) ISBN 0-7176-0861-1.
For advice on preventing sick building syndrome please ring us on 0800 999 6066 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.