Is ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ Making a Comeback in 2020?

Carrie Liddell 2020

Carrie Liddell
Consultant, Assurity Consulting
17th April 2020

The term ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS) was first coined by the World Health Organisation in 1986 and is often considered something of the past. However, towards the end of 2019, concerns were raised that SBS may be on the rise in 2020.

This is partly as the result of the Remark Group’s 2019 Air Quality and Well Being at Work survey. It investigated the experiences of more than 1000 office workers. The results found that a vast number of workers were suffering from symptoms of SBS:

  • 86% of office workers suffered from headaches at work;
  • 91% suffered from tiredness and lethargy; and
  • Over 70% of workers were also said to experience dry throats, itchy or irritated skin, and itchy or watery eyes.

But what could be the reasons for this, and are buildings really the cause?

SBS, though a commonly known issue, is widely misunderstood. This is partly because the causes are difficult to pin down, as its symptoms are common and can be related to issues that have nothing to do with a building. SBS when it occurs however, is generally attributes to:

  • Poor ventilation and circulation;
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) being present in the air as the result of construction work;
  • Bacteria, viruses and dust mites; and
  • Air pollution being present in a building.

Suspicions that SBS may be a problem are particularly common in office areas, where workers spend much of their time indoors and may not get much “fresh air”.

In 1984, a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicated up to 30% of new or remodelled buildings may have poor indoor air quality with the potential to have an adverse effect on human health. This could be due to newer buildings being more airtight in order to save energy costs, causing a lack of ventilation. This can result in a lack of fresh air, and undesirable air or contaminants being unable to escape. It’s possible that in 2019, new buildings without effective ventilation systems in place may have been facing the same problem.

Furthermore, there are concerns that air pollution in 2020 may rise. This would see a need for ventilation and filtration systems to work harder than in previous years, in order to maintain a good quality of indoor air. In this circumstance, adjustments may need to be made to make sure that systems are effective in preventing ill health. This would indicate that in order to provide good air quality, and maximise employee wellbeing and productivity, monitoring the efficiency and effectiveness of ventilation and filtration systems is a must.

Tests and inspections can examine the efficiency and results of ventilation and filtration systems, and their cleaning regimes, throughout a building. This can identify whether there are any problems, and what can be done to solve them. Whether it be setting a schedule for opening windows for natural ventilation, to replacing filters in air handling units, low cost actions can be taken to make sure that SBS remains a thing of the past. If you need any help in this area – please let us know!