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    Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in Indoor Air May Reduce Employee Productivity

    Posted by on for ProLampSales

    Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in Indoor Air May Reduce Employee Productivity

    Managing indoor air quality in the workplace is an important tool for business owners and office managers to improve employee productivity, reduce sick leave and boost employee attitudes about coming to work every day.

    A Forbes study showed that over 65% of employees said they were more productive in office environments that promote a healthy environment. In this same study, air quality was reported by employees as the most positive influence on wellness in the workplace.

    The list of indoor air pollutants includes: CO2, Particulates, Volatile Organic Compounds and Ozone. Temperature and humidity, while not pollutants, are also important indoor environment comfort factors for employees.

    In a previous post, we discussed CO2. This post focuses on VOCs.

    VOCs Defined

    Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals, released as gasses, from materials in the building. There are many VOC sources, but the most common include office furniture, office copiers and printers, carpets, paint, solvents, cleaning solutions and aerosol sprays. Even "air fresheners" can generate VOCs.

    Exposure to VOCs, especially indoors where concentrations are usually higher, can produce short term sensory irritation symptoms including:

    • Eye, nose and throat irritation
    • Headaches
    • Fatigue
    • Dizziness

    While not all employees will experience these symptoms, the fact that there may be many hours of exposure during a typical work day increases the likelihood of some impact that will affect work performance.

    VOC levels are measured in parts per billion (ppb):

    • 0 ppb - Good
    • 220 ppb - Moderate - may cause some symptoms
    • 660 ppb - Unhealthy if Sensitive - more likely to cause symptoms
    • 2200 ppb - Unhealthy
    • 3300 ppb - Very Unhealthy
    • 4400 ppb - Hazardous

    Monitoring Indoor Levels of VOCs

    Like the other indoor air pollutants, VOCs can be monitored. Spot monitoring is considered a poor approach because it only provides pollutant levels at a single point in time. When samples are collected only a few times throughout the year, it's impossible to see the fluctuations and higher concentrations of pollutants that may be occurring over long stretches of time.

    Continuous monitoring of all pollutants, including TVOC (Total VOCs), provides a clear picture of how concentrations may fluctuate during the day, unexpectedly spike temporarily or stay at dangerously high levels for several hours each day. If concentrations of VOCs stay elevated above 600 ppb, corrective action can be taken.

    In addition, depending on the workplace layout, multiple sensors can reveal specific problem areas that need attention while other areas of the workspace may be fine.

    Here is a screen shot of the data feed dashboard from a Kaiterra Sensedge Mini, one of the sensors on the market. It shows a short term spike in TVOCs in a 200 square foot office with continuous ventilation. This office is one of many in a newer office building.

    It is unclear what caused this spike at about 8am in the morning. The office had been occupied with one person since 7am. The spike didn't last long, so it's not an immediate concern. But it's an example of the intelligence gathering capability of indoor air quality sensors.

    The sensor used for this example allows you to see the overall indoor air quality index or select specific indoor pollutants including TVOCs. It operates continuously 24/7. Historical data can be exported for analysis.

    Mitigation Strategies For High Levels of VOC

    If an elevated level of TVOCs persists in a workspace, corrective action may start with an attempt to locate and, if possible, eliminate an obvious source. If the space has operable windows that are frequently open, the VOCs could be coming from nearby sources outside of the building.

    Barring an easy fix by removing a source, the usual solution is increased ventilation. With the sensor readings, you can easily determine how much ventilation is required to get the concentrations down to a safe level.

    It's often assumed that building ventilation is at odds with energy efficiency. However, with a data driven approach and an HVAC system that allows modulating ventilation to different areas of the building, ventilation can be optimized for both healthy indoor air and energy savings.

    Benefits for Businesses and Employees

    If you use sensors to monitor your workplace continuously for VOCs and other indoor pollutants, you can catch issues early and make corrections. This will reduce employee absenteeism and sluggish productivity caused by poor indoor air quality.

    Research done by the Harvard Department of Environmental Health (and others) showed that indoor air quality improvements with enhanced ventilation improved worker productivity by 8% - largely by reducing absenteeism and improving the health of employees.

    In addition, the data generated by the sensors provides a way to reassure employees that a healthy indoor environment is a high priority. A recent survey found that over 80% of millennials will feel safer returning (post-COVID) to offices with real time indoor air quality transparency.

    There are a number of commercial grade indoor air quality sensors on the market. Look for connectivity (including wifi, ethernet and BACnet), an easy to read dashboard for viewing data real time, a historical data export function and replaceable sensors.

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