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The silent killer putting our workforce and business profits at risk

Photo shows a woman feeling ill in an officeA silent killer is lurking inside our workplace buildings, attacking our workforce and putting pressure on business profits and our economy. It is our indoor air.

The UK has some of the highest sickness rates in the world. We lose millions of days of work each year as a result of ill health, which is reportedly costing our economy tens of billions of pounds. This is a particular problem during the autumn and winter months when viruses such as colds and influenza quickly spread through offices.

The buildings we work in are full of viruses, bacteria and moulds, so it’s no surprise that our workforce takes so much time off for sickness. Our air indoors is around 200 to 500 per cent more polluted than it is outdoors and a survey published by the World Health Organisation reveals that indoor air pollution is causing 2.7 per cent of the global burden of disease. But whilst outdoor air pollution is discussed frequently and openly, little attention is paid to the air we breathe for the vast majority of our daily work life.

The problem lies in the fact that most buildings have little or no fresh air circulating inside. New buildings have been built to save energy, with modern well-sealed windows, while older buildings have implemented measures to reduce heat and cooling loss. To achieve this, buildings have become increasingly air-tight, with little fresh air available from outside to dilute workplace contaminants. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems may successfully control air temperature, but they also effectively spread human transmissible infections, such as flu, asthma, allergies, cold, throat and eye irritation. How many times have you heard a manager say that an illness has “swept through the office”?

Employers have a ‘duty of care’ to their staff, which means they should take all reasonable steps possible to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing. But it’s not just a legal duty; there are also clear economic reasons for businesses to address poor indoor air. Staff salaries and expenditures make up the bulk of operational expenses associated with occupying an office building. Over 85 per cent of total workplace costs are spent on salaries and benefits, compared to less than 10 per cent on rent and less than 1 per cent on energy. Poor indoor air not only results in sickness and absenteeism, but also “presenteeism”, where your employee is at work but not maximally productive.

Research suggests that by making even small improvements to productivity, health and well-being, businesses can experience greater financial benefit than they would from more efficient resource use in building operations. So how can businesses ensure their workforce is healthy and their business remains competitive?

There are three ways to make improvements to indoor air; eliminate sources of pollution, improve ventilation and clean the air. You can’t stop viruses entering a building; they will arrive on people’s clothes and bodies. So to effectively tackle the spread of sickness in the workplace, businesses must take steps to clean the air and kill bacteria and viruses before they spread.

The UK falls far behind many other countries across the world. During the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, the Chinese government used ultraviolet radiation technologies (UVC) in air conditioning systems to fight against the virus. It was so effective that the government approved their use in all government buildings. These simple technologies fit into existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, killing viruses and bacteria 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The use of this technology in ventilation systems is also commonly used in hospital and commercial buildings across the USA.

Dangerous indoor air has been ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for far too long. The problem is not only putting workers at risk, but also our economy under pressure. We need to create workplace buildings that will enhance health and well-being and better safeguard our workforce. It’s more than just a duty of care to improve the air quality in buildings, if staff can breathe better, they will work better.

Author bio

Hillary Spicer, UK Managing Director, E-CO. E-CO supplies high-intensity ultraviolet germicidal solutions for HVAC (Heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems. We help implement green and efficient Steril-Aire™ UVC technology for HVAC systems across buildings and facilities, to deliver cleaner indoor air, free of bacteria, viruses and mould, while reducing your energy costs.

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