COVID-19, sick building syndrome and good air quality

The phrase ‘learning to live with COVID-19’ is something we are hearing more and more as the UK starts to come to terms with new ways of working including hybrid office/home-based roles.
Posted: Friday, 22 July 2022

Whilst avoiding excessive contact with other people is possible whilst at home, there remain health concerns when staff are asked to come into the office and mix with colleagues.

Learning to live with the COVID-19 virus doesn’t mean you have to ignore it and hope things get better. There are many things that a company can do to help protect its staff from airborne infections when they are in the office, and indeed companies have a broad duty of care to their employees when on company property.

Duty of care

Building managers and employers need to demonstrate that they are regularly maintaining indoor air quality including ensuring regular maintenance of ventilation systems is carried out. This isn’t a new COVID-19 induced requirement but is detailed under The Workplace Health, Safety, and Welfare Regulations 1992.

What the above paragraph means is that if you run an office or other company premises, you are already responsible for ensuring that the air quality is of sufficient standard. If it’s poor, you not only run the risk of new COVID-19 outbreaks but also of generating ‘sick building syndrome’.

What is sick building syndrome?

The NHS defines sick building syndrome as the name for symptoms staff can regularly develop while in a particular building. You can get it in any building, but mostly it happens in open-plan offices. 

Possible symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • blocked or runny nose
  • dry, itchy skin
  • dry, sore eyes or throat
  • cough or wheezing
  • rashes
  • tiredness and difficulty concentrating

This is not a new problem. Back in 1984 a World Health Organisation report (via the EPA) suggested that up to 30 per cent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality.

It’s not clear exactly what directly causes sick building syndrome, but all reports and discussions acknowledge that it is probably due to a combination of things, including poor ventilation, low indoor air quality or poorly maintained air conditioning systems.

What can be done to improve air quality?

Clearly one of the main ways to quickly reduce risks of COVID-19 outbreaks and sick building syndrome is to improve air quality.

The UK's Health & Safety Executive has issued these notes:

Dealing with Sick Building Syndrome need not be costly if you start with the simplest things first and only move on to the more costly options if the simple things do not work.

The ventilation system should deliver air of suitable quality and in sufficient quantity to:

  • create and maintain a healthy and comfortable environment, ie provide fresh air;
  • dilute and remove airborne impurities and pollutants, e.g. odours, tobacco smoke, fumes and dusts;
  • create and maintain a comfortable temperature and humidity; prevent stagnation and draughts.

In line with the above guidance, there has been a recent increase in companies installing air purification systems, either into existing air conditioning units or as stand-alone devices.

Here at Alpha-Purify, we have seen strong interest in our ultraviolet (UV) lamp-based UVETTA air purification range.

UVETTA comes in three different models, portablerecessed and suspended, to cover a range of spaces from small offices to large warehouses. It’s designed for use in the presence of people with the UV light safely enclosed within the system, which allows for continual use without the risk of harm to anyone nearby.

How does it work?

The devices take in air from the surrounding area and expose it to a UV light source. Short-wavelength ultraviolet (UV-C) light has been proven to inactivate microorganisms by disrupting their DNA, leaving them unable to perform vital cellular functions such as reproduction. This includes the SARS virus of which COVID-19 is part of the family. The clean air is then simply pushed back out into the building.

For more information on ongoing research into UV-C and COVID-19 read our recent blog.

Using UV light to help clean air isn’t a new idea. Back in 2003 Dick Menzies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and colleagues took a look at sick-building symptoms and ways to reduce them. They found that by installing UV germicidal irradiation (UVGI) lamps in the air-conditioning systems of three office blocks they could cut all such symptoms by 20 per cent.In workers reporting sick building symptoms, switching on the UVGI lamps resulted in a 20 per cent overall reduction. It also slashed respiratory symptoms by 40 per cent, and mucosal symptoms by 30 per cent. Ref: Journal reference: The Lancet: (vol 362, p 1785)

Taking action to help work in a safe environment is key

The debate over working in an office and working from home continues to divide employers and employees. Undoubtedly in order to justify ongoing building rents and costs, employers wish to see their buildings utilised.

And there are benefits to having people back in the office:

  • closer working relationships are forged,
  • quicker decision-making may be possible
  • easier understanding of topics being discussed through face-to-face discussions
  • greater speed and clarity on holding people to account
  • higher visibility of workloads
  • mental health benefits for people who live alone or in homes with limited workspace

But when encouraging working in an office, employers must ensure they are looking at all ways in which to provide a safe working environment. And that includes air quality and ways to help improve it.

For more information on Alpha-Purify’s UVETTA range of air purification devices visit our UVETTA page or Contact Us.