Most adults spend a large part of the day at work. If the air in the workplace is not healthy, it means they are breathing in toxins, allergens and irritants for extended periods. If you’re exposed to these over the long term, you run the risk of developing occupational lung diseases.
There’s also the danger of COVID-19, which can spread through airborne aerosol and also affects the lungs. This risk makes it all the more important to protect employees from possible infection if they are working on site.
Fortunately, we have COSHH regulations that provide guidance to ensure healthy lungs at work. However, if you’re not sure about how to implement these in your workplace, we’d be happy to help.
How Can You Promote Lung Health in the Workplace?
If you’re an employer, you should be concerned about employees’ lung health even if you aren’t in an at-risk profession. Whilst dust and fumes generated from several occupational processes is known to be hazardous, poor indoor air quality inside offices too can affect the employees’ health.
With prolonged exposure, bad air quality indoors can lead to work-related asthma and COPD, or even cancer. This is why you need to be aware of the factors that could affect the lung health of people in the workplace.
Here is a list of common indoor air pollutants:
Processes in metalworking, carpentry, construction and even pharmaceuticals can lead to the generation of airborne dust. However, if you’re in an office, working at your desk, you can still have dust in the air.
Some of it might be from the dirt that you and your co-workers tracked in, but there are other sources of dust inside, including your own body. Indoor dust can be up to 50% dead skin cells, with other sources like pollen from indoor plants, food debris, clothes lint and fibres.
Do you have a carpet in your office? All this dust can get trapped in it and fly into the air when disturbed, causing poor lung health in the workplace.
Mould and Mildew
Most offices have indoor heating and air conditioning, which means employees are discouraged from opening windows for air circulation even in summer. Unfortunately, this can lead to a build-up of moisture inside the workplace. Combine that with a consistently warm temperature inside, and you have a recipe for mould and mildew.
Mould and mildew are types of fungi. The way these reproduce is by releasing microscopic spores in the air. Since these are tiny, you can inhale them when you breathe. Once inside your lungs, they can cause allergies or irritate the pleura to cause work-related asthma or COPD.
Spaces between walls and filing cabinets or large desks can be home to little creatures like mice and rats—these rodents also frequent areas where there might be food.
Some indoor spaces might also have vents and insulation spaces which can be home to insects, like wasps, bees, ants, termites and houseflies, as well as birds.
All of these creatures leave droppings, shed skin dander or feathers and collect nesting material that could dry out and create dust. All of these different types of micro-particles can accumulate indoors, creating airborne pollutants that affect employees.
Smoke and Exhaust Fumes
Smoke can be from environmental sources, like a fire outside, or from cigarettes. Exhaust fumes, on the other hand, are released by vehicles as they burn fuel to run.
The source may be outdoors, but the smoke can make its way inside through doors and windows. Depending on the source, this smoke can contain chemicals, gases and soot particles that can get inside your lungs.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemical fumes created from products that may be found or used indoors. These can range from the cleaning chemicals that you use to sanitise surfaces to your printer’s ink to office products, including glue, markers, inks, treated paper and more.
These fumes build up inside closed office spaces and are known to affect lung health adversely.
Whilst these are airborne particulate matter and fumes that you’d find in an office, other workplaces can also have other pollutants that are released as part of the work process.
Controls You Need to Ensure Lung Health in the Workplace
If your work involves processes that generate aerosols, fumes or dust, you need to have procedures in place to ensure these do not become a hazard to your employees. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website, you need the following controls to ensure lung health in the workplace for your employees:
Mechanical controls are equipment that protect the employees from the airborne hazards in the workplace. These include local exhaust ventilation (LEV) which extracts pollutants at the source, respiratory protective equipment (RPE), room-wide extractors etc.
Do you undertake tasks in your workplace that lead to fumes and dust of any kind or handle materials that are known to be toxic? If so, you need to make sure that you have the proper mechanical controls in place to protect your employees. (Hint: we can help!)
As an employee, you should have a trained supervisor who overlooks hazardous processes. This person’s role is to ensure that the employee is following safety procedures and also to monitor their health.
The supervisor can ensure that the worker is taking the appropriate precautions to protect himself and other people in the area.
No amount of supervision can replace a skilled worker who is aware of health and safety procedures and guidelines. That is why it is your responsibility as an employer to ensure that you train your operators and workers properly.
An employee who knows the proper way to undertake a process and the risks involved is likely to be more careful and follow safe practices.
Now, these are controls that you’d need in a workplace where airborne pollutants that affect lung health are being generated every day. What about offices, where you may not need LEV or safety procedures for cleaner air?
Here’s what you can do in that case.
Improve Indoor Air Quality for Better Lung Health in the Workplace
Invest in an Air Purifier
We have previously discussed the benefits of air purification for controlling the spread of viruses and bacteria. That can be quite handy for ensuring healthy lungs in the workplace, especially if you consider the impact Coronavirus has on your organs.
However, air purifiers with the right kind of HEPA filter will also filter out the lethal respirable dust particles (particles so tiny that they can pass right through your airways into your lungs, and from there, into the air sacs and bloodstream).
Additionally, if your air purifier has carbon filters, it will also remove harmful fumes, including those from VOCs, smoke and more.
Such an extraction unit will continuously suck in air, clean it and push it out into the room whilst trapping and containing all the elements that could affect lung health.
If the outside air is not polluted or laden with exhaust fumes, it can help improve the lung health in your workplace. Circulating fresh air inside can reduce the number of pollutants and allergens that may have accumulated inside. It can also blow out any hazardous vapours and smells that may be building up.
Finally, fresh air and open windows help keep the humidity inside low, which prevents mould and mildew from growing.
Clean Your Ducts and Air Vents
Ducts and air vents are often used to circulate air around a large office space. However, these areas are ideal for dust build-up and for small animals. In order to ensure lung health in your workplace, you need to make sure these are cleaned often. Clean ducts and air vents mean you won’t have dust being circulated in your rooms.
Clean Your Air Conditioners
Air conditioners (ACs) have filters that remove dust particles from the air so that the cold air they blow out is free from pollutants. However, if these filters aren’t cleaned or replaced regularly, your AC will be blowing dangerous airborne dust along with cooling air. Cleaning them is one step you can take to promote healthier lungs at work.
Avoid Scented Products
Scented air fresheners, candles and even personal products contain VOCs that might not be harmful in small quantities. However, if your workplace does not have adequate ventilation, these can build up inside and have a detrimental effect on the lungs of everyone working there.
Invest in Pest Control
As we mentioned earlier, pests inside your workplace can add to the dust and fumes inside. If you can keep them out of your office, you can improve the air quality.
Plants are known for absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. However, certain indoor plants are said to absorb other noxious gases as well. Whilst having plants may add to the moisture content in the air, they do provide other benefits, including better mental health.
Check and Fix Water Leaks
Now, you may be wondering how water could affect lung health in the workplace. However, leaky pipes result in damp walls, and as the damp spreads, it can lead to mould and mildew. By fixing leaks and drips as soon as you detect them, you can keep your office free from their harmful spores.
As you can see, there is a lot you can do as an employer to ensure better lung health in your workplace. If you’re looking for mechanical controls, or advice regarding them, we’ll be happy to help. Please get in touch with your questions and we’ll give you the means to ensure healthier lungs at work.