Sick building syndrome (SBS) may sound funny, but it’s no joke. Not only do we spend more of our time indoors than ever before (90%) but fresh air per person is decreasing at an alarming rate. This has lead to a striking increase in headaches, allergies, sickness, and worse.
The effects on employee health are rarely long-lasting. However, the consequences for businesses could lead to financial ruin. This guide to SBS for businesses covers the basics, signs and symptoms, and financial consequences of SBS for businesses as well as ways to combat its ill effects, retain more employees, and protect yourself from damaging legal action.
Intro: Understanding The Sick Building Syndrome
In 1983, the World Health Organization (WHO) began using a new phrase to describe the acute health effects or discomfort experienced by employees suffering from indoor air pollution: Sick Building Syndrome.
The rush for energy efficiency and the office space crunch coupled with the rise of pollutant-producing office equipment (e.g. computers and fax machines) resulted in a sickening combination for building occupants: more air pollutants in less space.
This has dire consequences for both employees (health effects) and businesses (The WHO considers SBS to be the main cause of absenteeism and low efficiency).
Signs and Symptoms of SBS
One common theme among sufferers of SBS is near instant relief upon leaving the building.
The signs and symptoms are usually obvious. However, it’s difficult to determine whether or not symptoms are due to SBS or other ailments such as the common cold.
Some even report severe asthma attacks from prolonged exposure.
While lasting damage is rare, SBS is a health risk. This is especially true for at-risk populations like the elderly. The real damage, however, is done to businesses.
Implications of SBS for Businesses
As a business, your greatest asset is your people. And, as the world becomes more interconnected and consumers increasingly expect personalized and friendly services, the people within your company become increasingly important.
This is where the wider implications of SBS for your businesses are felt.
SBS can result in serious financial loss, hits to your public image, costly employee turnover, and drastic effects on productivity. In fact, the reverberations of SBS can be felt years after your employee’s noses begin to itch and their throats begin to dry.
Failing to recognize the warning signs and take action could result in a number of negative consequences:
According to Peoplekeep.com, the average cost to replace a retail worker making $10/hr is over $3,000. For other positions, it is between 6-9 months of salary. That means a $50,000/yr manager would cost roughly $25,000 MINIMUM to replace. Younger generations consider quality of life and happiness at work to be far more important than salary. Are you willing to lose more people due to a poor working environment?
Absenteeism and Reduced Productivity
The U.S Center for Disease Control reports that reduced productivity and absenteeism cost businesses roughly $1,700 per employee or a total of 225.8 BILLION dollars per year.
The direct cost of paying an employee for labor they did not perform is easy to quantify, but it’s the residual effects that are the most damaging. Consider:
And that doesn’t include employee turnover for replacing frequently absent employees. For every employee absent due to SBS, your company incurs $1,700 in absenteeism costs PLUS the costs of paying overtime to employees, decreased quality of work, administrative costs, and potential costs of replacing them further down the line.
More and more plaintiffs are filing suit for damages they claim are caused by SBS.
Failure to identify risks and take action could lead to liability if employees contract disease caused by air pollution. One paper by the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel spells out the dire situation:
“The theories (of liability) which can be advanced are limited only by the creativity of the plaintiff’s attorney.”
And liability rarely stops at employers. Owners of the building themselves may be at risk of liability from the businesses which operate within for reduced employee productivity or other losses.
The primary causes of SBS lie in your building’s construction. These structural inadequacies usually lead to costly building renovations. Some of the most common renovations involve ventilation and building materials.
In a few extreme cases, companies are forced to abandon their premises altogether due to the effects of SBS, as was the case with the company “The Inland Revenue,” which had to give up its 19-story building in England due to the absenteeism of roughly 50% of its staff.
Common causes of SBS include:
The factors leading to SBS are directly related to the construction of your building, and they are exceedingly difficult to correct post-construction. Usually, the business or building owner becomes responsible for upgrades to ventilation, materials, or other construction factors.
How to Reduce Your Risk as a Business Owner
While the construction of your building is often outside of your control, there are plenty of ways for business owners to combat SBS and the ensuing financial risks. Most, if not all, are simple, cheap, and effective.
Where to Start: Employee Surveys
The simplest and most effective way to begin fighting the effects of SBS is to conduct an employee survey. Ask them how they feel, what they would change, and what makes them feel uncomfortable.
This will help you identify:
TIP: Redo the survey 2-3 months after the initial date to further investigate the persistence of symptoms.
Next: Basic Measures
After the initial survey, move on to these measures to combat SBS in your office:
As long as there are no “fatal” flaws in the construction of your building, you will be in control of SBS within your office. There are even air purifiers that remove 99% or more of harmful airborne particles, leaving the air within your office clean, safe, and fresh. Some of these purifiers are even designed specifically for offices to help combat SBS and keep employees in good health.
If the air circulation within your office is poor, SBS is not a matter of “if” but when.
This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that some causes of pollution within the office cannot be removed (e.g. computers).
However, with the right combination of air purifiers, you can easily combat these issues. Most offices need two types of purifiers: HEPA and Carbon Filter.
A HEPA purifier will remove particulate matter from the air (dust, dander, pollen, etc.). However, this isn’t enough for most businesses. Your office almost certainly has volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air, harmful gaseous substances produced by chemicals or office equipment.
To effectively remove these VOCs, you must add a carbon filter air purifier. Combine a HEPA and carbon filter air purifier, and you’ll greatly improve your air quality and reduce symptoms of SBS.
Combating SBS as a Business
The consequences of not dealing with SBS in your office are clear. Employee turnover, increased costs, low productivity, and legal liability are just the beginning. As a business, you must introduce simple measures to control SBS: clean filters, new cleaning products, and more green plants. However, if you don’t introduce HEPA and carbon filter air purifiers, there may be no way to successfully prevent SBS and its negative consequences.