Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Andrew Burger headshot

How Smart Climate Control Benefits Employee Wellness

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.

Health, healthcare and employee wellness

Total healthcare spending in the U.S. amounted to $2.4 trillion ($7,900 per person) in 2007, a remarkable 17 percent of GDP. But the rising cost of healthcare didn't stop there. It rose another estimated 3.9 percent in 2011, representing just shy of 18 percent of GDP. Healthcare expenditures have been forecast to continue rising faster than economic growth, reaching some $2.4 trillion by 2021

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.”

Employee wellness & Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)

Calling corporate wellness programs “a recent mega-trend impacting businesses of all sizes,” in a March, 2012 article, Corporate Wellness identifies five trends highlighting some of the innovative ways corporations can help shape employee health and wellness. The magazine overlooks the most ubiquitous and perhaps most far-reaching issue of all: indoor environmental quality (IEQ).

Four environmental factors define IEQ in a workplace or any other indoor environment:

  • thermal comfort;

  • indoor air quality;

  • acoustic comfort; and

  • visual comfort.

A growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air quality in residential, commercial and industrial buildings can be worse than air quality outdoors, even in the largest and most industrialized cities, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.

In An Office Building Occupants Guide to Indoor Air Quality, the EPA classifies threats to employee wellness according to three broad categories:

  • Biological contaminants. Excessive concentrations of bacteria, viruses, fungi (including molds), dust mites, animal dander, and pollen may result from inadequate maintenance and housekeeping, water spills, inadequate humidity control, condensation, or may be brought into the building by occupants, infiltration, or ventilation air. Allergic responses to indoor biological pollutant exposures cause symptoms in allergic individuals and also play a key role in triggering asthma episodes for an estimated 15 million Americans.

  • Chemical pollutants. Sources of chemical pollutants include tobacco smoke, emissions from products used in the building (e.g., office equipment; furniture, wall and floor coverings; and cleaning and consumer products), accidental chemical spills, and gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, which are products of combustion.

  • Particles. Particles are solid or liquid substances which are light enough to be suspended in the air, the largest of which may be visible in sunbeams streaming into a room. However, smaller particles that you cannot see are likely to be more harmful to health. Particles of dust, dirt, or other substances may be drawn into the building from outside and can also be produced by activities that occur in buildings, like sanding wood or drywall, printing, copying, operating equipment, and smoking.

Smart HVAC, climate control, employee safety, health & comfort

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems play the central role in shaping workplace indoor environmental quality. In large buildings, HVAC systems “are designed and operated not only to heat and cool the air, but also to draw in and circulate outdoor air. If they are poorly designed, operated, or maintained, however, ventilation systems can contribute to indoor air problems in several ways,” the EPA notes.
“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.”

What's taking place inside buildings also has an impact on employee health and wellness. “Indoor air pollutants can be circulated from portions of the building used for specialized purposes, such as restaurants, print shops, and dry-cleaning stores, into offices in the same building,” the EPA points out. “Carbon monoxide and other components of automobile exhaust can be drawn from underground parking garages through stairwells and elevator shafts into office spaces.”

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.

Smart climate control, HVAC & environmental quality in the US workplace

A wide range of private sector businesses -- from architectural firms, property developers and construction companies to energy and HVAC equipment manufacturers, installers and service providers – are also keen to enhance air quality and raise indoor environmental quality in the workplace.

There are five basic types of ventilation systems in the markeplace today, according to the federal government's Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA):

  • dilution and removal by general exhaust;

  • local exhaust;

  • makeup air (or replacement);

  • HVAC (primarily for comfort); and

  • recirculation systems.

Indoor air contaminants can be transported by the ventilation system or originate in various parts of a building's ventilation system. “People exposed to these agents may develop signs and symptoms related to 'humidity fever,' 'humidifier lung,' or 'air conditioner lung.'
“In some cases, indoor air quality contaminants cause clinically identifiable conditions such as occupational asthma, reversible airway disease, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis,” OSHA explains.

Workplace air quality, smart climate control & your health

Among a range of standards meant to assure a minimum ventilation rates and indoor air quality in U.S. workplaces, OSHA requires that a certain amount of fresh, outside air is brought into and circulated inside commercial buildings. Known as make-up or replacement air, the ASHRAE 62-2004 standard specifies the minimum ventilation rates and indoor air quality acceptable for occupants in order to minimize potential adverse health effects.

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.”

Smart control mechanisms that can monitor conditions both internal and external to the system, adapt to changing conditions by adjusting system levels and communicate data and information are core aspects the latest in smart climate control and HVAC systems. But smart indoor climate controls are only one aspect of a system's design. Energy efficiency and mechanisms to assure overall indoor environmental quality have to be designed into all components of a smart commercial or residential HVAC or climate control system from the get-go.
“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.”

Energy efficiency and IEQ: hand in hand

Enhancing the energy efficiency of today's climate control and HVAC systems goes hand in hand with enhancing their capacity to afford workers a safe, healthy and comfortable workplace environment, according to Landwehr.

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.”

Inefficient AC, HVAC and climate control systems translate into the need for more power plants. Still reliant on coal for the large majority of power generation capacity, that translates into higher levels of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. That in turn, translates into more degradation of land, water and air, which ultimately determine the safety, health, wellness and comfort of all inhabitants.

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.”

Emerson Climate Technologies is working to improve the minimum energy efficiency of its AC, HVAC and climate control systems. Depending on utility rates and geographic location, commercial building owners and managers can realize a positive return on their investment in five to seven years by improving the energy efficiency ratings of their AC and HVAC systems from 13 to 16 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating), Landwehr told 3p. By doing so, “you also get additional benefits in terms of improved air quality, inddor health, comfort and improved productivity,” he noted.

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.

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

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.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger

More stories from Data & Technology