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Sick buildings, sick workers

ינואר 15, 2007. Haaretz: Ira Rosen
At the beginning of last week, 1,700 employees who work at Tel Aviv's Kirya government office complex used sanctions to protest the poor working conditions in their luxurious office building, whose construction was finished about two years ago. The workers complained about a choking feeling, "stifling air," overcrowding, infections and eye irritations that prevented them from working. Last Wednesday, things returned to normal after treasury wage supervisor Eli Cohen promised to intervene to resolve the problem.

The work dispute made headlines because employees at the Kirya serve hundreds of thousands of Dan region residents. Usually, complaints of this nature remain between employees and employers.

Dr. Asher Pardo, an expert on occupational hygiene at the safety and hygiene institute of the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry, relates that in 30 percent of office buildings, workers complain of various symptoms, from feeling choked or a "lack of air," headaches, fatigue, irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin, to respiratory reactions and increased susceptibility to infection.

When more than 20 percent of people working in one building have these symptoms, and they disappear or decrease dramatically when employees leave the building or go on vacation, this can be an indication of "closed building syndrome" or "sick building syndrome."

Pardo says an analysis of the complaints indicates that half are related to a lack of ventilation. This refers not only to the number of times the ventilation system refreshes the air inside, but also to the quantity of outside air brought into a closed office. In modern construction, the desire to streamline systems and save on heating and cooling expenses led to insulated buildings with no ventilation. According to Pardo, since more than half of the work force in industrialized countries works in such conditions, the potential exists for considerable harm to public health.

Air conditioning systems transport chemical and biological contaminants within the building. Moreover, the location of a building's vents is very significant in terms of contaminants. For example, when a vent is located close to a road surface, it introduces vehicle exhaust that may affect the health of employees inside the building.

Not in their heads

Prof. Joseph Ribak, the head of Tel Aviv University's school of public health, says every worker is affected differently by the physical and psychological work conditions. Some people have a low threshold and develop intense physical reactions easily, while others do not feel anything.

The connection between symptoms and psychology lies at the heart of a scientific debate over the causes of the phenomenon, but it has not been proven that the workers' problems are solely in their heads. On the contrary, psychological tests conducted on office workers who did and did not complain of symptoms yielded similar results. Dr. Pardo says that when complaints stem from a workplace, there is a psychosocial factor in addition to physical, chemical and biological causes. Factors that could affect workers' health include high population density or isolation, and of course, irregular working relations.

The air-conditioning system also has a considerable impact on sick building syndrome. Over time, the vents and filters accumulate dust and other particles that enable the development of mites, fungi and microbiological pollutants. Good maintenance and clean air conditioning systems are one way to improve things.

The ventilation rate is defined as the volume of fresh air per person introduced into a closed space over a certain period of time. Studies found a high incidence of symptoms among workers when the ventilation rate was less than ten liters per second per person. Tests showed a dramatic improvement in symptoms when the ventilation rate was then increased.

Despite the restriction on smoking in public places in Israel, second-hand smoke can be found in closed buildings even when the source is far removed.

"Open space in offices, when the dividers do not reach the ceiling and the air flows unobstructed," explains Ribak, "can lead to the smoke from the smoking area at a distant end of the floor reaching the work space. Moreover, the air conditioning system can transport it."

Modern construction materials, furniture and rugs can also cause problems. When insulation made of artificial mineral fibers is damaged or wears out, it disintegrates into minute particles that can irritate the respiratory system, skin and eyes. The furniture is often made from combinations of wood chips, compressed paper and glue. These substances may contain formaldehyde, which evaporates - particularly in the cases of new or worn-out furniture - and causes symptoms.

Wall-to-wall carpets can be doubly harmful: When they are laid, some of the glue evaporates, and it takes a few days before the odor dissipates. The rugs also accumulate large amounts of mites and dust, which cause allergic reactions.

Locating a sick building

According to Ribak, when there are numerous complaints from workers, an occupational epidemiological investigation should be launched to find - and hopefully remove - the source of the problem. "Multiple complaints," he says, "can lead to 'mass hysteria,' when a growing number of employees complain of physical symptoms even if they aren't necessarily suffering from them."

The epidemiological survey consists of a detailed survey of workers' complaints and physical conditions, and a comprehensive inspection of the building. The Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry's supervision department is responsible for overseeing workplaces. The inspectors have the authority to check to what extent a given workplace meets the standards and whether the law is being obeyed. If a work supervisor feels there are flaws that need to be fixed, he can order them repaired and set a timetable. However, Pardo says there are no specific regulations on sick building syndrome, and therefore supervision is more guidance than enforcement. In addition, two years ago the only occupational medicine institute was closed due to cutbacks at the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry, and there is no place left that coordinates information and research, or monitors complaints. There are currently several private organizations that deal with occupational hygiene, but no central body guides the research agenda. More importantly, there is no organization looking out for new risks.

Secrets to a healthy office

Ventilation: There should be 10 liters of outside air per second per person; the recommended flow rate is up to nine meters per minute in the winter, and up to 15 meters per minute in the summer. The air conditioning and ventilation systems must be periodically maintained.

Climate control: The temperature should be between 20 and 24 degrees Celsius. Humidity should be 40 to 50 percent in a regular office environment, and 50 to 60 percent for prolonged work in front of a computer. No direct sunlight should hit the office.

Lighting: Fluorescent lights should have multiple shades. Diverse lighting creates a more comfortable environment for reading and writing.

Furniture: Furniture made entirely from wood or sandwich board is preferable to that made of fibers or MDF. Make sure all plywood furniture is covered so that particles are not released into the air. Avoid carpeting or fiber covering on the walls. Proper, ergonomically designed cubicles will prevent injuries associated with prolonged sitting and computer work.

In addition, paper piles should not be spread all over the office; paper tends to accumulate humidity and disintegrate. Water-based paints are preferable to epoxy- or polyurethane-based paints except for specific places where such paints are necessary.
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