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Poor Indoor Air Quality Linked To Low Worker Productivity

By Sarah Lozanova

As companies seek to improve their bottom line, many examine worker productivity as a means of cutting costs and boosting revenue. Worker productivity, measured by the goods and services produced in an hour, is on a downward slide, according to recent reports.

Indoor pollutants are increasingly recognized as affecting overall health, but studies also link indoor air quality to cognitive function and mood. Inadequate ventilation, elevated levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), and indoor pollutants can hinder one’s ability to focus, concentrate and respond to crises.

Harvard study links productivity, indoor air quality and ventilation

The Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Syracuse University conducted a groundbreaking double-blind study in 2015. Half the participants, including architects, engineers, designers, programmers and marketing professionals, continued their regular work for six days while some were exposed to elevated levels of volatile organic compounds and CO2. The others, the green+ participants, had lower volatile organic compound levels and enhanced ventilation. All participants completed cognitive tests at the end of each day.

The green+ participants' cognitive function scores were twice as high on average as those of the employees in conditions with elevated levels of contaminants. When examining nine cognitive domains, researchers found the largest differences in crisis response, with scores 131 percent higher in the green+ group; the group also scored 288 percent higher in strategy and 299 percent higher in information usage.

“People who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and CO2 have significantly higher cognitive functioning scores — in crucial areas such as responding to a crisis or developing strategy — than those who work in offices with typical levels,” the researchers led by Joseph Allen wrote in their study.

Poor indoor air quality is frequently overlooked

As buildings become increasingly energy efficient, they are also becoming more airtight. This means that less air is exchanged through the building envelope and air pollutants can be trapped inside the building. Ventilation is a leading strategy for boosting indoor air quality, but its importance is often overlooked.

“We have been ignoring the 90 percent,” said Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, and lead author of the study. “We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, and 90 percent of the cost of a building are the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought. These results suggest that even modest improvements to indoor environmental quality may have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers.”

Building-related illnesses, such as sick building syndrome, initially gained attention in the 1980s. In response, the healthy building movement is addressing issues such as indoor air quality and other aspects of the indoor environment.

Ventilation solutions reduce contaminant levels

“Formaldehyde, mold, stale air: the best solution for indoor air pollution is dilution,” said Larry Ponziano, Midwest technical sales representative for Zehnder America. “Indoor air pollution is a sad but true fact in our world. I’ve seen it first-hand that [heat recovery ventilators] have lowered the formaldehyde levels in the air by a factor of 10 and mold counts by a factor of 12.”

Zehnder heat recovery ventilators provide continuous ventilation and replace a third of the air volume in a space each hour with fresh, filtered air. As a balanced ventilation system, it supplies and exhausts an equal amount of air. The most energy-efficient heat recovery ventilation systems on the market, Zehnder systems capture heat from the exhaust air and transfer it to the intake air.

“Diluting sick air with fresh air is a great solution,” Ponziano explained. “Our systems also capture a high percentage of the energy that is otherwise dissipated in the atmosphere.”

Unlike in the 1980s, ventilation solutions exist that both dramatically improve indoor air quality and save energy. Although the energy savings may be easy to calculate, the advantages of being able to form effective strategies and respond to crises are priceless and can have a dramatic impact on a company’s bottom line.

Image Credit: Flickr/WOCinTech Chat

Sarah Lozanova headshot

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova