Illnesses brought on by the work environment are now grouped under the term Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). The direct causes of SBS are often hard to pin down, but the condition gained international recognition in 1982 when the World Health Organisation formally recognised the term.
According to a Health and Safety Executive report, workers employed in large office buildings, and particularly those who have little control over their work environment, are most likely to be affected by SBS. Symptoms include a wheezy chest, sore eyes, irritable throat and nose, headaches and tiredness. Most people put these symptoms down to the stress of their work. In fact, the causes are more likely to lie with the air-conditioning, computers, printers, faxes, lighting and carpets.
"The major problem with computers, printers and photocopiers is the ozone they give off. It is an irritant to our airways that can lead to asthma," says Muriel Simmons, chief executive of charity Allergy UK, which this week launched National Allergy Week to highlight the problems that allergies cause.
Most office workers have no idea that the equipment surrounding them gives off ozone. The closer you sit to the equipment, or the smaller the office, the greater the problem. "Once you become sensitised to the ozone it affects you wherever you are," says Simmons. "One lady who came to us used to work in a photocopying room and now can't even have burgers in polystyrene containers because of the ozone they emit, she has now had to go and live in the Highlands."
However, it is not just their equipment that workers should be aware of. Office plants are not as innocent as they seem. "It is very common now to have lots of plants in the workplace, but unfortunately they attract mould," says Simmons. "A lot of people have allergic reactions to mould, but if you put pebbles on top of the soil it actually stops it growing."
All may not be as it should be underfoot either. Given the right conditions, house mites can prosper in the office carpet.
Simple measures such as improving the ventilation in the building can have a dramatic effect on the levels of ozone, as well as it making it a less attractive environment for mites living in the carpet and furniture.
"Modern buildings are actually the worst when it comes to ventilation," says Simmons. "The windows don't open much, if at all, and we are not convinced that air conditioning is effective for removing ozone, there needs to be more research."
Also, if the air conditioning is not running efficiently the air quality will diminish and increase the spread of airborne viruses and bacteria. Air conditioning specialists regularly come across filthy ducts and even dead pigeons in the system.
Most workers have little control over the temperature and humidity levels in their building. If the temperature is too high, as is often the case, workers will become dehydrated and lethargic.
Lack of cleanliness or over-cleanliness can also be added to the list of irritants. Dust will be quick to appear in an over-heated environment and it will get into everything. But strong chemicals used during cleaning can also trigger allergic reactions.
"The chemicals used for dry cleaning curtains and blinds are really strong, so drapery should be thoroughly aired before being put back up - this often doesn't happen," says Simmons.
So what can you do about SBS, apart from changing jobs or campaigning to the building manager?
Allergy UK recommends products such as Nozone, a free-standing vaporiser which absorbs the ozone thrown out by office equipment. Also, take regular breaks away from your computer, sit further away from the printer, drink lots of water to prevent dehydration and, most importantly, spend time outside so that your body has a chance to exhale some of those pollutants.
Sick Building Syndrome: the symptoms
- Eye, nose and throat irritation
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Dry or itchy skin. A rash
- Headaches, lethargy, irritability, poor concentration
- Nausea and dizziness
- Symptoms of SBS tend to increase in severity the more time is spent in the building and improve or disappear when away from the building.
Sick Building Syndrome: common causes
- Poor building and office design - open-plan offices with more than 10 workstations are a particular problem
- Poor building services and maintenance
- Air conditioning/poor air quality
- Artificial lighting/glare and flicker
- Low levels of user control over the heating etc
- Insufficient or badly organised cleaning
- High temperatures or excessive variations in temperature
- Chemical pollutants such as ozone and tobacco smoke
- Dust or fibres in the atmosphere.