Feature: How does air quality affect the workplace?

Director at Evotech Air Quality, John Lumb explores how air quality might affect the workplace, from lower productivity to higher absenteeism. 

Lower productivity

Research shows that poor air quality in workplaces can have a significant negative impact on the cognitive functioning of employees, including slower response times and the ability to focus, adversely affecting productivity.

A double-blind study from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that people working in well ventilated offices with low levels of pollutants have double the cognitive function of those in offices with average levels of exactly the same pollutants.

Another one-year study, which included participants in offices across six countries working in a variety of fields, including engineering, real estate investment, architecture, and technology, found that increased concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and lower ventilation rates, measured using carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, were associated with slower response times and reduced accuracy on a series of cognitive tests. Researchers noted impaired cognitive function at concentrations of PM2.5 and CO2 that are common in indoor environments today.

‘In an average size meeting room without adequate ventilation, three people can cause CO2 to reach a level that affects their cognitive function in just 45 minutes.’

People who work indoors may be exposed to a higher level of particulate matter. This is especially likely in workplaces and offices with poor ventilation systems, as these particles can become trapped indoors with no way to leave. Once they’re inhaled, they can cause illnesses like asthma, COPD, coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. There is also evidence that links PM2.5 to low birth weight, diabetes and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. And, it has been proven that PM2.5 can cross from the lungs into the bloodstream and is subsequently able to damage every organ in the body.

Better ventilation and filtration in workplaces to help prevent the transmission of viruses has the additional benefits of better cognitive functioning and productivity of employees, making healthy buildings key to public health and business strategy moving forward.

man standing in front of people sitting beside table with laptop computers

High absenteeism

We spend 90% of our lives indoors where the air can be up to five times more polluted than that outdoors. Indoor air quality and comfort are not often seen as basic cornerstones of wellness, because they’re out of sight, out of mind. However, the side effects of poor air quality can have a profound impact on a company’s bottom line. A recent report conducted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that air pollution causes three million lost working days each year in the UK.

The report found that work absences alone related to poor air were costing Britain about £600m a year, due to people missing work from poor health caused by air pollution.

So, it’s in an organisation’s best interests to ensure that indoor workspaces have clean, healthy air for employees to breathe. Currently, over a working lifetime, British employees will have nearly three months off sick, a total of 94 days.

Is it possible to increase ventilation whilst improving energy efficiency and reducing emissions?

Building owners are under pressure to address poor indoor air quality by increasing ventilation, whilst actively lowering energy usage to meet ambitious emission targets. From 1st April 2023, Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) Regulations will make it unlawful for landlords to let a commercial property not meeting the energy efficiency requirements, and also unlawful to continue letting a commercial property without improving the property’s energy efficiency to at least an E EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) rating. Landlords should also be aware that a minimum rating of EPC B will be required by 2030 and there is a newly proposed interim milestone of a minimum C rating by 2027.

Research shows that buildings account for around 40% of total energy use. The operational phase of a building’s energy use is mainly depicted by heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC), lighting, and appliances. The building’s energy demand is greatly influenced by the climatic conditions and its use of HVAC systems that account for a significant proportion of a building’s energy consumption, especially in hot, humid climates where it can account for more than 70 percent of total electricity consumption.

In addition, recent soaring energy prices have put running costs at the top of the agenda for most UK businesses, especially owners and managers of large commercial or public buildings. Reducing energy will save building owners money and help them improve their EPC rating which has now been enshrined in law.

The key tool that commercial real estate needs to embrace to overcome this global challenge is the informed, strategic use of building data. By using sensors to monitor room occupancy, temperature and CO2 levels, building management systems can make real-time decisions to make energy efficiency savings by reducing energy consumption in unoccupied areas. In addition, the BMS also ensures the correct temperature and air flow in occupied areas of the building, keeping it compliant with new regulations and reducing the risk of virus transmission.

By optimising mechanical ventilation in this way, adequate levels of filtered outdoor air is ensured throughout the building, diluting stale indoor air and so reducing the risk of sickness, long term health conditions and the transmission of viruses. In addition, absenteeism can be reduced, and the feeling of wellness and productivity increased. The system can also make significant energy savings and a rapid return on investment, whilst reducing carbon emissions.


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8 months ago

An additional aspect to consider when it comes to indoor air quality and workplace productivity is the maintenance and regular cleaning of air conditioning systems. Over time, these systems can accumulate dust, mold, and other contaminants that, when recirculated, can negatively impact the air quality. It’s important for businesses to implement routine servicing of their HVAC units, including thorough cleaning and filter replacement, to ensure employees are breathing clean, healthy air. This proactive approach, combined with improved ventilation, can significantly contribute to a more productive and comfortable work environment.

10 months ago

Speaking of improved air filtration, I want to mention the idea of using HEPA filters. HEPA filters can actually be beneficial for indoor air quality. However, such filters can restrict airflow and potentially reduce the efficiency of an HVAC system. HEPA filters typically have a MERV rating of 17-20, which indicates their ability to trap small particles.

You can check your HVAC system’s specifications and consult the manufacturer’s documentation or the user manual to determine the recommended MERV rating for the filter. However, for the best and safest results, it’s still advisable to consult with a professional technician for confirmation and installation.

11 months ago

Thank you for the insightful article on the impact of air quality in workplaces. It’s clear that clean air enhances cognitive function, productivity, and employee well-being. The use of building data and sensors to improve energy efficiency and air quality is a promising approach. 

1 year ago

This is all very well but what if the air outside is full of road traffic fumes? Do modern ventilation systems have filters and can the filters cope with PM, VOC, NOx? Where I once worked in a city we usually had to shut the windows to keep the fumes out, especially at ground floor level and basement rooms.

Evotech Air Quality
Evotech Air Quality
1 year ago
Reply to  chris

Hi Chris

This is a good point! Most modern HVAC systems do have a good level of filtration installed, however, filters must be maintained, cleaned, and replaced regularly if they are to work adequately, and ductwork must also be kept free from dust and bacteria. Gas-phase systems (usually activated charcoal filters) effectively remove NO2, chemical vapours, volatile organic compounds and ozone but are not always installed with the HVAC system but can be retrofitted.

F7 grade filters are around 70% efficient at filtering PM2.5, however, the better the filtration on mechanical ventilation systems, the harder the fans need to work, increasing a building’s energy consumption. This is where Evotech’s myBEMS AI system can help by ensuring that only occupied areas of the building receive conditioned air to effectively reduce energy usage.

As indoor air quality becomes regulated, improved filters and germicidal UV systems to filter fine particulates and kill bacteria and mould spores in the air will become commonplace, until then building managers and employers should be making air quality data available to building occupants.

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