Sick building syndrome

24 October 2019

Sometimes, a work environment can cause an employee to fall sick, rather than their actual job role. Here, when workspaces are unkempt, unsuitable, or unclean, it can affect everyone within your business.

Sick building syndrome comprises more than just fixing your indoor air quality. It's about protecting the welfare of everyone within your business premises.

If you neglect legal health and safety duties, you could end up facing detrimental consequences. Like, losing employees, paying compensation, and even reputational damages.

In this guide, we'll look at what sick building syndrome is, what the causes and symptoms are, and how to promote a healthy workplace.

What is sick building syndrome?

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is when you experience negative health effects after spending time in a certain premises.

This ‘building-related’ disease is commonly found in older properties but can be present in newer builds. Workplaces with a mechanically-controlled ventilation system or air temperature gauge are often flagged up through SBS.

Building occupants may often experience acute symptoms but cannot specify what's causing their sickness. SBS can be diagnosed in various industries, but it's generally found in confined environments (like indoor office-workplaces).

office with bright lights and large windows

Common symptoms of sick building syndrome

There's a wide range of symptoms linked to SBS. Some can even mimic illnesses like breathing difficulties or the common cold.

Common examples of SBS symptoms include:

  • Respiratory issues: Like blocked nose, breathing difficulties, and chest tightness.
  • Allergy-like issues: Like sneezing, occupational asthma, and throat irritation.
  • Physical conditions: Like eczema, nausea, and humidifier fever.
  • Mental health: Like stress, headaches, and concentration issues.

There is a main distinguisher which separates general illness and sick building symptoms. People don’t tend to feel them before visiting a particular building - only during or afterwards.

Who is affected by sick building syndrome?

Any individual who visits your workplace can be affected by sick building issues. This includes both employees and non-employees alike.

If a person already suffers from allergies, they might notice their conditions worsen. For example, people with breathing difficulties may experience higher asthma attacks after visiting the building.

Health and safety risks are accentuated in places with sealed windows, poor indoor air quality, and inadequate ventilation systems. That's because the levels of bacteria and viruses are usually higher in these areas.

Sick building syndrome can affect everyone in different ways. Some employees might not experience any negative effects or symptoms at all. Others may feel better once they’ve left the building.

worker analysing electrical equipment

What are the causes of sick building syndrome?

There are many causes which can lead to SBS. Those under building occupancy  may feel their health worsen, the longer they spend in this environment. .

Some common causes found to attribute to SBS include:

  • Badly-maintained air conditioning systems.
  • Excessive dust, chemicals, and fumes.
  • Bright, intermittent, or poor lighting.
  • Neglected cleaning and hygiene maintenance.
  • Environmental tobacco smoke and intoxicants.
  • Overcrowded or insufficient work areas.
  • Work-related stress and poor interpersonal relationships.
  • Poor communication and overworking cultures.

Because of the multiple potential causes, it's hard to establish a singular root source. As an employer, you need to pinpoint as many potential risk factors which lead to SBS.

Through reasonable efforts, you can eliminate workplace hazards and protect employees efficiently. But if you neglect this, it could increase demotivation, absence, and even turnover.

tall glass building with open windows

What are the UK laws on sick building syndrome?

There is no specific employment law which covers sick building syndrome. However, there are relevant laws which are applicable.

UK legislation which covers occupational health and safety matters include:

  1. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA).
  2. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR).
  3. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (WHSWR).

Complying with health and safety guidelines sets the precedence for your lawful duties. They also help manage risks and hazards during everyday work.

What are the consequences of neglecting sick building syndrome?

If employees become ill because of the state of your work environment, you may be held liable. By neglecting occupational safety procedures, you may be found guilty of malpractice and negligence.

Affected employees could decide to raise grievance claims to the employment tribunal (ET). Here, you could face:

  • Unlimited compensation penalties.
  • Work disruption and reputational damages.
  • Business closure (semi- or permanent).
  • Imprisonment (depending on the seriousness of the negligence).

That's why it’s important to evaluate your safety conditions and promote a healthy work environment.

air conditioning units ona  building

How to manage sick building syndrome in the workplace

It's near impossible to eliminate every cause found in ‘sick buildings’. However, you need to strive towards containing potential risk or trigger relating to SBS.

That way, you can safeguard your employees, customers, and non-workers found on your premises. And it's this that leads to business output and success.

Here's how to manage sick building syndrome in the workplace:

Managing health and safety requirements

Regardless of your business, it's crucial to eliminate workplace hazards as much as reasonably possible. By identifying risks and setting safety measures, you're on the way to creating a secure environment.

Some of the most common H&S requirements to manage include:

  • Slips, trips, and falls: Keep walkways and exit routes clean and free from clutter. For example, cleaning up spills properly to eliminate future accidents.
  • Ergonomic injuries: Offer suitable furniture and display screen equipment (DSE) so employees work in comfortable conditions. For example, providing sedentary employees with chairs that have padded backs, seats, and armrests.
  • Gas maintenance: Ensure all gas facilities are maintained properly. For example, ensuring motor vehicle exhaust fumes don't cause indoor air pollution.
  • Fire prevention: Regulate all legal fire safety precautions and duties. For example, check whether carbon dioxide (and carbon monoxide) detectors are linked to the fire prevention authorities.
  • Work appliances: Check dangerous or electrical equipment are used, stored, and kept correctly. For example, replacing safety guards and storing office machinery after use.

For further advice, you can contact local building services engineers or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). They both offer expert advice on environmental health procedures common to your business area.

Improve indoor air quality and circulation

Many buildings have windows that cannot be fully opened. This helps to prevent incidents like dropping objects or falling from heights.

But if you do have windows that open (partially or fully), utilise them for fresh air circulation. Naturally ventilated buildings allow employees to breathe in quality air. By eliminating poor ventilation rates, you can improve things like breathing difficulties or throat irritation.

Avoid opening windows which face high-traffic areas or industrial sites, as this leads to air pollution. Find a good level for your indoor air quality, as this easily rectifies sick building issues.

Regulate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems must be kept in good conditions. Maintenance can include things like changing the filters on air conditioning systems. Or ensuring natural materials are stored at the right air temperature.

You can regulate these through risk assessments. The recorded data can help you keep on top of potential HVAC-system blips.

It's best to assign this responsibility to a competent employee, who’s received proper certification and training. Or you can choose to hire professional services from air conditioning engineers. Air filters and ducts should be free from dirt, mould, and vermin. If not, toxins could exacerbate any sick building issues.

HVAC also covers room temperature found in work environments. You can eliminate inadequate ventilation by keeping a particular room at reasonable temperatures. It’s recommended to keep them at around 18C and avoid changing levels repetitively throughout the day.

Identify areas prone to mould and mildew

Some of the most common biological contaminants found in buildings are mould and mildew. They thrive from moist or humid surroundings - aggravating allergies and irritation. That's why it's important to eliminate them through efficient cleaning.

If you have damp or wet work areas, they need to be properly maintained. Identify damp air filters, cooling towers, or water-stained ceiling tiles. Then, manage the source of the damp and set up drying procedures.

Some tasks can be managed using anti-mould solutions and space-heaters. Other times, you might need to hire professional cleaners to get rid of fungus permanently.

Promote positive health and wellbeing

Employee welfare is often swayed and influenced by a work environment. That's why it's important to promote positive health and wellbeing.

Make small changes to your work conditions and areas to help officiate this. For example, keep personal workstations clean and clutter-free. This can indirectly reduce negative psychological factors, like work-related depression and stress.

Making an active effort towards promoting employee wellbeing is beneficial for the business on a whole.

Advocate regular hours and breaks

It’s so common for employees to blur their professional and personal hours. They often skip breaks, work overtime, and disregard schedules. As an employer, you need to advocate regular work hours and breaks.

Make sure employees take legal breaks away from their workstation. Encourage them to go outside and get fresh air, rather than stay cooped up indoors.

By taking daily breaks away from screens and tasks, you can eliminate the risks of negative mental health strains.

Check the safety labels on interior building materials

In some cases, employers may have the authority to choose the materials for their building interior. Here, aim to select materials that don't emit chemical substances or toxins.

Choose paints with low volatile organic compounds (VOW) ratings, as this highlights any harmful chemicals found inside. When buying interior goods, like sofas or carpets, look for conformance labels so you can select the least harmful options.

Offer relevant medical referrals

Not all employers have the power to make drastic changes to their work environment. Maybe you don't own the premises or don't have contact with the building designers.

But you can help employees suffering from the causes of SBS by offering relevant medical referrals. It’s especially helpful for those suffering from acute illnesses. For example, allergy medicine can help those suffering with conditions like itchy eyes or rashes. For more prominent issues, they can receive long-term medication like inhalers.

Remember, your priority is to create a safe and healthy workspace which primarily eliminates SBS and its risk factors.

Get expert advice on managing sick building syndrome with Peninsula

Workplaces present a multitude of safety risks and hazards. That's why it's vital to follow legal regulations and practices when it comes to your SBS.

By doing so, you can promote secure and healthy working conditions - guaranteeing business loyalty, performance, and success.

Peninsula offers expert advice on managing sick building syndrome. Our team offers an unlimited 24/7 HR advice service which is available 365 days a year; with multi-lingual assistance and fully trained counsellors ready to help.

Want to find out more? Book a free consultation for advice from one of our HR employment consultants. Call <a href="tel:08000282420" class="rulertel">0800 028 2420</a>.

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