Let's begin with some data: Air Quality Index (AQI) values are categorized as follows—0 to 50 is labeled as good, 51 to 100 is satisfactory, 101 to 200 is moderate, 201 to 300 is poor, 301 to 400 is very poor, and 401 to 450 is severe. Any AQI reading above 450 falls into the severe plus category. Currently, air quality levels in various Indian cities are as follows: Delhi at 417, Mumbai City at 230, Kolkata at 259, Chennai at 39, Bengaluru at 77, Hyderabad at 124, Lucknow at 340, Ahmedabad at 212, Jaipur at 251, Patna at 304, and Ranchi stands at 107.
Now that we've grasped the gravity of the situation, let's delve into the ubiquitous nature of the problem—it exists EVERYWHERE! The issue pertains to the very air we breathe, whether indoors or outdoors.
Both ambient and household air pollution share common origins, stemming from processes like incomplete fuel combustion or chemical reactions between gases. However, the specific sources of these combustion processes can vary. For instance, household activities such as cooking, heating using outdated technologies, and lighting with kerosene can release an array of harmful pollutants indoors. On the other hand, high-temperature combustion in vehicles, industries, and power generation plants significantly contributes to ambient air pollution. Even seemingly innocuous activities like boiling water for bathing or preparing animal fodder can add to the burden of household air pollution exposures.
In 2019, it was estimated that ambient air pollution, both in urban and rural areas, led to a staggering 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide. This mortality can be attributed to the exposure to fine particulate matter, which is a significant contributor to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as various forms of cancer. The World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that, in 2019, approximately 37% of deaths related to outdoor air pollution were linked to ischaemic heart disease and stroke. Furthermore, 18% and 23% of fatalities were attributed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute lower respiratory infections, respectively. An additional 11% of deaths were associated with cancer within the respiratory tract.
Conversely, household air pollution results from the utilisation of inefficient and polluting fuels and technologies in and around homes, releasing an array of health-damaging pollutants, including fine particles that can infiltrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. In residences with inadequate ventilation, indoor smoke levels can be as much as 100 times higher than the acceptable threshold. This exposure is particularly pronounced among women and children, who tend to spend more time in close proximity to the household hearth. Reliance on polluting fuels and technologies not only impacts air quality but also requires substantial time for cooking on inefficient devices and for collecting and preparing fuel.
What are Pollutants?
When we talk about pollutants, we're referring to harmful substances that can make the air we breathe unhealthy. According to the WHO, some of the most concerning pollutants are particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Exposure to these pollutants, whether over a short or long period, can lead to health problems. In some cases, there is no safe level of exposure to these pollutants.
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2): This gas is often released from burning fuels in cars and factories.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2): This colourless gas has a sharp smell and is produced when we burn fossil fuels like coal and oil or when we process certain minerals. It's not something you want in the air you breathe.
Particulate matter (PM): This is like tiny bits of substances in the air, and it's a common sign of air pollution. Breathing in PM can seriously harm your health. PM is made up of sulfates, nitrates, ammonia, black carbon, and even dust.
Carbon monoxide (CO): You can't see it, smell it, or taste it, but carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas. It's produced when things like wood, petrol, charcoal, and natural gas don't burn completely.
Ozone (O3): The ozone we're concerned about is not the protective layer high up in the atmosphere. Ground-level ozone is a major part of smog, and it forms when certain gases react with sunlight.
What can HRs do to protect their employees?
Inadequate indoor air quality in offices is a serious concern due to several factors. Pollution sources in these spaces can make the air unhealthy to breathe, and ventilation systems are often not well-designed or properly maintained. Moreover, the way buildings are used can worsen the problem.
Many office buildings have various sources of indoor air pollution that significantly impact air quality. This issue goes beyond mere discomfort; it poses a real health risk to those working in these spaces. It's crucial to address this indoor air quality crisis with comprehensive measures to ensure a safe and healthy environment.
In many office buildings, there are significant sources of indoor air pollution. Some examples are:
- Smoke from tobacco
- Materials like asbestos in building supplies that are meant to resist fire
- Formaldehyde, which can come from pressed wood products
- Other chemicals from things used to build or furnish the office, such as carpets and furniture
- Cleaning products and the process of cleaning itself
- Air fresheners in restrooms
- Substances like paints and adhesives, as well as equipment like copiers and printers
- Things like mould and other contaminants that can be found in the building's ventilation systems, or on walls, ceilings, and carpets that have been damaged by water
- Pesticides that are used for pest control
The design, operation, and maintenance of ventilation systems play a crucial role in determining how indoor air quality is impacted by these pollution sources in office settings. Unlike their homes, employees often have limited control over the indoor environment within their office spaces. As many organisations are currently encouraging employees to return to the office, it is imperative for leaders to be fully aware of the health risks associated with office buildings and take proactive measures. Here's what leaders can do:
A tie with a doctor/clinic/hospital is a must: Ensuring a direct link with a medical professional, clinic, or hospital is imperative for employee safety. In case of any health concerns due to indoor air pollution, quick access to medical assistance is crucial. Regular health check-ups and guidance from healthcare experts can also help employees better understand and address potential health issues stemming from poor indoor air quality.
Consider work from home: Offering the option of working from home can be a practical solution to mitigate the risks associated with air pollution. Employees can create a healthier and safer workspace at home, reducing their exposure to workplace contaminants. This flexible approach not only promotes well-being but also demonstrates an organisation's commitment to the health of its workforce.
Desktop air purifiers: Implementing desktop air purifiers in the office can significantly enhance air quality. These devices provide a localised source of clean air, reducing the concentration of pollutants around employees' workstations. Using such purifiers ensures that employees have access to clean air during their work hours, safeguarding their health and productivity.
Shut down night shifts: Suspending night shifts can be a strategic move to combat indoor air pollution. Night shifts often involve limited ventilation and increased exposure to pollutants. By discontinuing these shifts wherever possible, employees may have minimised health risks associated with prolonged exposure to indoor contaminants.
FFP1 masks, N95 masks-on rule: Enforcing the use of FFP1 and N95 masks can be a critical protective measure. Mandating the continuous use of these masks in the workplace ensures that employees have an additional barrier against harmful airborne particles. This rule acts as a frontline defence, reducing the inhalation of pollutants and promoting a safer work environment.
Take the office’s thorough cleaning seriously: Consistent and extensive cleaning procedures play a crucial role in eliminating dust, allergens, and contaminants from the workplace, which, in turn, improves air quality and lowers health risks for employees. It's important to note that deep cleaning and disinfection should ideally be scheduled during times when employees are absent, such as on Friday nights. This approach minimises the impact of cleaning chemicals, ensuring that by Monday morning, the workspace is both clean and safe for everyone.
Cabs' cleaning: Extending the commitment to clean air to employee transportation is essential. Regular cleaning and maintenance of cabs or transport vehicles used by the workforce can significantly contribute to reducing their exposure to pollutants during commutes. Clean and well-ventilated vehicles promote better overall health for employees.
Replace air filters frequently: Maintaining clean air ducts and regularly changing air filters is a vital preventive step. Clogged filters and accumulated debris within air ducts can worsen indoor air quality over time. A routine schedule for replacing air filters, typically every 6-12 months, ensures that the ventilation system functions optimally and safeguards employees' health by preventing the recirculation of contaminated air.
How to improve air quality in office
- Make sure that things like furniture or boxes doesn't cover the office air vents. This helps the air to move around properly and keeps the air clean.
- It's important to have the right level of moisture in the air. Not too dry, not too wet. If it's just right (around 30-50%), it helps control dust and mould. You can use machines like dehumidifiers and air conditioners to get this right.
- Plants are not just pretty; they also help clean the air. They soak up bad particles in the air and give out fresh air.
- Sometimes, it's a good idea to have experts test the air in your office. They have special tools to see if the air is okay or not. They'll check things like air flow, humidity, smell, and more. After they're done, you'll know what needs fixing to keep the air in your office nice and clean for everyone.
In today's world, where the air we breathe is often laden with pollutants that pose serious health risks, safeguarding our employees from the perils of air pollution is not just a responsibility; it's an imperative.