Offices, restaurants, retail outlets, warehouses, manufacturing facilities, industrial plants – most of the work being done in the U.S. economy today takes place indoors, in offices and other types of commercial building space. Research indicates that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, most of it in the workplace. And as it turns out, exposure to indoor air pollutants can pose a greater health risk for many than exposure to air pollution outdoors.
Workplace temperature, humidity, air quality and movement, noise levels and levels of natural and artificial light – they're all important, determining factors when it comes to employee health, wellness, comfort and productivity. In addition to helping stem troubling trends in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and overall ecological sustainability, a new generation of smart climate control technology and systems hold out the promise of enhancing employee health, wellness and comfort by improving air quality and overall indoor environmental quality in the workplace.
Meanwhile, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance rose 131 percent, from $5,791 in 1999 to $13,375 in 2009, with the amount paid by workers rising by 128 percent. These upward sloping trends are forecast to continue unabated as well.
It probably isn't surprising given the the prevalence of “office” and indoor workers, rising health care costs and health problems, such as obesity, that there's a magazine devoted to corporate wellness. Corporate Wellness Magazine is the offical magazine of the Corporate Health & Wellness Association, “the first national non-profit association focused on health, wellness, disease prevention and management for employers, employees and their families.”
Four environmental factors define IEQ in a workplace or any other indoor environment:
In An Office Building Occupants Guide to Indoor Air Quality, the EPA classifies threats to employee wellness according to three broad categories:
“For example, problems arise when, in an effort to save energy, ventilation systems are not used to bring in adequate amounts of outdoor air. Inadequate ventilation also occurs if the air supply and return vents within each room are blocked or placed in such a way that outdoor air does not actually reach the breathing zone of building occupants.
“Improperly located outdoor air intake vents can also bring in air contaminated with automobile and truck exhaust, boiler emissions, fumes from dumpsters, or air vented from restrooms. Finally, ventilation systems can be a source of in door pollution themselves by spreading biological contaminants that have multiplied in cooling towers, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, or the inside surfaces of ventilation duct work.”
In addition, buildings typically serve multiple purposes over their lives. “Buildings originally designed for one purpose may end up being converted to use as office space,” for example, the EPA continues. “If not properly modified during building renovations, the room partitions and ventilation system can contribute to indoor air quality problems by restricting air recirculation or by providing an inadequate supply of outdoor air.”
Health and wellness in the workplace has become prominent enough to warrant inclusion in the general and permanent federal laws of the United States, with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) responsible for providing overall guidance to Federal agencies and helping them implement programs as effectively as possible. Public Law 79-658, Title 5, Section 7901 of the U.S.C. authorizes all federal government agencies to offer employees are Environmental Health Hazards Appraisals.
There are five basic types of ventilation systems in the markeplace today, according to the federal government's Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA):
“In some cases, indoor air quality contaminants cause clinically identifiable conditions such as occupational asthma, reversible airway disease, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis,” OSHA explains.
There are other aspects to indoor air quality in addition to make-up air, however. In addition to more efficiently regulating temperature, circulating and heating or cooling the air flowing through commercial buildings, today's smart, higher efficiency central air conditioning (AC) and HVAC systems employ a range of filters that remove particles and other types of pollutants, explained Frank Landwehr, VP of marketing and planning at Emerson Climate Technologies. They also regulate humidity more effectively and efficiently, he added.
“The advantage of high-efficiency systems is that they circulate air more frequently and more evenly. They also have the advantage of reducing humidity,” Landwehr told 3p.
“Humidity is the real problem in much of the U.S. You need to run the central AC to get rid of that humidity. We have found that if we don't remove it throughout the day and seasons, you wind up with problems with mold, which affects a wide range of human conditions.”
“It's not just about saving energy and protecting the overall environment, it's also about protecting your own environment, making it comfortable and healthier,” Landwehr elaborated. “We recommend contractors that install our equipment, and we encourage both residential and business owners to be careful when selecting a contractor.”
AC adoption in the U.S. is reaching the saturation point, Landwehr noted. “It's become a necessity, not a luxury, in many parts of the U.S., and the infrastructure has evolved along with this to fill that need.”
The situation is different in rapidly developing economies, such as those of China, Brazil and India, where increased demand for AC, HVAC and climate control systems has been accelerating. The rapid pace of construction and real estate development in these countries has translated in a need for more in the way of power infrastructure, he continued.
“To the extent they can do this with the most efficient equipment, they can combine high energy efficiency, assure indoor air quality and provide a high level of employee safety, health and comfort without having to build out so much in the way of infrastructure.”
Energy-efficient central AC and HVAC systems are the key to enhancing indoor environmental quality, according to Landwehr. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is working with stakeholders to develop new energy efficiency standards for HVAC and climate control systems that will also help assure improved indoor air quality and a higher level of safety, health, wellness and comfort in US workplaces.
“From the U.S. standpoint, the government provides definite regulations for various efficiency levels,” Landwehr elaborated. “We're working with our OEM (original equipment manufacturer) customers to help their systems achieve those. The new standards are due to go into effect in 2015.”
Looking to reach out to the broader public as well as existing and prospective customers, Emerson Climate Technologies developed AC & Heating Connect, an initiative Landwehr directed.
A vendor-agnostic multimedia online information resource, AC & Heating Connect offers homeowners, facility managers and contractors a wide range of information on today's A/C, HVAC and climate control systems and their interrelationships with indoor air and overall environmental quality, including how they can help enhance employee safety, health, wellness and comfort.
An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.