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Indoor Air Quality: Handling Complaints

What is indoor air quality (IAQ)?

Indoor air quality refers to the quality of air in a building, especially in an office setting. The terms “sick building syndrome” (SBS) or “building-related illness” (BRI) have been attributed to buildings with questionable indoor air quality. In the case of SBS, no specific illness can be identified. With BRI, a specific illness has been identified and attributed to the building and its contaminants. The occupants often experience acute health effects and discomfort while in the building. The complaints may be widespread throughout the entire building or specific to a particular floor or area.

Several factors contribute to poor indoor air quality. Airtight buildings and buildings with poor ventilation increase the risk of an employee experiencing adverse health effects associated with SBS or BRI. Additionally, chemical contaminants (adhesives, vehicle exhausts, cigarette smoke, plumbing vents, copy machines, and pesticides) and biological contaminants (bacteria, molds, pollen, plant soil, and stagnant water) may contribute, either by themselves or in conjunction with the ventilation issue, to create an unhealthy and uncomfortable atmosphere.

Common Signs and Symptoms of IAQ Issues

Some common signs that may indicate an employee is experiencing effects of “sick building syndrome” include:

  • Headaches
  • Hoarseness, cough, sore throat
  • Nosebleeds
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Burning and watering eyes and throat
  • Shortness of breath under mild exertion
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Swelling of legs, trunk, or ankles
  • Sensitivity to odors
  • Wellness when away from the building

This is not a comprehensive list and it is important to remember that these signs do not always mean that the work environment is the cause of an employee’s illness. Individuals under normal circumstances may experience one or all of these signs or symptoms at any given time.

What About Asbestos?

Some employees may work in facilities that have building materials containing asbestos, such as floor tiles, ceiling tiles or insulation on piping. Asbestos is defined as “either of two incombustible, chemical-resistant, fibrous mineral forms of impure magnesium silicate, used for fireproofing, electrical insulation, building materials, brake linings, and chemical filters.”1 During construction or renovation work, some areas of a building may be surrounded by plastic, with warning signs indicating a possible asbestos hazard. Some employees may voice their concern about exposure to asbestos.

At some point, we are all exposed to very low levels of asbestos in the ambient (typical) air. Persons exposed to very concentrated levels are usually exposed in the work environment. The occupations of concern include pipe/steam fitter, plumber, brake repair mechanic, insulation installer, dry wall finisher, carpenter, roofer, electrician, miner, welder, and shipyard worker. Each of these occupations exposes employees to very large quantities of asbestos.

Asbestos is not considered one of the main causes of SBS or BRI. However, many agencies are located in buildings that may still contain a great deal of asbestos from floor tiles, ceiling tiles, or insulation. Treat complaints arising out of areas containing asbestos as indoor air quality issues, and investigate and correct accordingly.

Responsibilities of Building Managers and Owners

According to OSHA, employers are responsible for providing a work environment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”2 This statement includes conditions affecting indoor air quality that may cause serious illness.

The building manager or owner should conduct a building inspection to identify any areas of concern at least once a year, after IAQ complaints, and whenever there are changes in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. During the inspection, the manager/owner should interview building occupants, evaluate the HVAC system, locate potential pollutant pathways, and identify all possible sources of contamination.

If a relatively small mold problem is identified, the American Society of Safety Engineers suggests the following steps to control mold:

  • Dry water-damaged areas and items within 24 to 48 hours or sooner when damage occurs,
  • Replace porous materials (ceiling tiles, carpet) because they cannot be properly cleaned, and
  • Clean non-porous material (tile, metal) with detergent and water and dry them completely.3

If the mold problem is extensive, a mold remediation specialist should be consulted.

Other solutions to indoor air quality problems include:

  • Increasing ventilation rates
    • Verify appropriate ventilation rates
    • Install local exhaust ventilation to remove accumulating pollutants
  • Identifying and controlling pollutants
    • Regularly clean and replace filters
    • Replace water-stained tile
    • Thoroughly ventilate chemical storage areas
    • Designate smoking areas (away from ventilation)
  • Communication between building management, occupants, and maintenance of IAQ problems and causes

Responsibilities of Employees

Employees should immediately report any wet, moldy, or defective ceiling tiles to building maintenance or parties responsible for repairing and maintaining the property. Any employee who experiences an illness or symptoms such as those listed above, while working, should immediately report the condition to their supervisor or manager. It is the responsibility of the supervisor or manager to investigate the report and have the issue corrected. If possible, managers/supervisors may also choose to relocate employees to another work area until the problem has been investigated and corrected.

What Role Does the Office of Workers’ Compensation Play?

The Office of Workers’ Compensation (OWC) is responsible for processing claims for work-related employee injuries and illnesses. Loss Control services are offered under the cost-containment portion of the program to support agency efforts to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. These services may include telephonic consultation for guidance and advice on appropriate steps and resources to control an IAQ issue. On-site consultation is reserved for issues that are more serious and may be requested from the OWC or may be assigned based on notification to the OWC from the claims staff.

Industry “Best Practices” to Address Employee Complaints

Interview all affected employees and obtain accurate statements about the exact nature of the problem. Survey the work environment and take pictures of tiles, leaks, mold, or wet furniture and carpeting. Obtain basic measurements of temperature, humidity, and air movement. When a cause for the indoor air quality has been determined, and there is a clear picture of how the building operates, utilize available agency resources or consult with an organization capable of performing industrial hygiene sampling for indoor air quality. Performing air sampling for specific pollutants without a complete picture of the contributing factors and causes can often yield misleading sampling results.

Appropriately addressing IAQ issues requires constant communication between employees, building managers, and building owners. Conducting regular inspections of the building and educating employees about early identification and reporting of signs, symptoms, and physical problems may prevent employee illnesses and prevent extensive damage to the physical building.

Available Resources for IAQ Issues

To view a list of trade organizations in the IAQ industry:

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

Building Owners and Managers Association International

OSHA- Indoor Air Quality: Hazard Recognition

OSHA- Indoor Air Quality: Evaluation and Control

Building Air Quality A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers EPA Publication No. 400/1-91/003 DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 91-114 December 1991

1 Asbestos. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All Rights Reserved Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

2 OSHA Act (1970). General Duty Clause. Retrieved October 14, 2004, from

3 American Society of Safety Engineers Offer Mold Clean-Up Tips. American Society of Safety Engineers News. Retrieved October 19, 2004, from


Sick Building Syndrome “The Phantom Phog”. Retrieved October 19, 2004, from

Asbestos. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved October 26, 2004, from

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