Finding the Link Between Employee Performance and Building Health

Consider this. You’re the CEO of a small software startup getting ready to launch your first big app. A significant amount of money and time has been invested into the project. The old saying, “You only have one chance to make a first impression” is keeping you up at night. But have you thought about your Indoor Air Quality(IAQ) relative to the project and employee performance? Of course not. But maybe you should.

Employee Performance Linked to Building Health

Optimized IAQ Improves Cognitive Function & Employee Performance

That hypothetical CEO depends on employee performance being at the highest levels. Mistakes are not an option. When those programmers are debugging the new application, they must be focused. Can building conditions such as ventilation rates, temperature, humidity and odors affect workers’ cognitive abilities? You bet it can! And a recent series of studies has found the correlation.

Joseph Allen, along with colleagues from Harvard University, Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical conducted a two-phase study to see if better IAQ can influence employee performance. They studied a worker’s ability to process information, make strategic decisions and respond to crises under different indoor environmental conditions.

“We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, yet we spend almost all of our time thinking about outdoor air pollution,” said Joseph Allen, director of the three-year-old Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, which has studied the benefits of keeping employees in top form. “What we’re doing here is quantifying what people intuitively know. When you’re stuck in a conference room that’s too hot, there’s no ventilation, you don’t perform as well.”

Phase one of the double-blind study tested 24 “knowledge workers” (managers, designers, and architects) over a two-week period at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. These workers were required to basically be themselves, performing their normal 9-5 work routine in this highly-controlled environment. Unbeknownst to them, the researchers shifted the IAQ conditions from a minimal accepted standard baseline to an optimized environment. At the end of each day, as the conditions were gradually improved, the subject’s decision making performance was tested using a standardized cognitive function test. The results were encouraging.

The research team found that optimized IAQ led to significantly better performance among all participants. Higher test scores were recorded across nine cognitive functions when ventilation rates were increased (and finally doubled), VOCs (chemical cleaners, dry erase makers, building materials, etc.) were decreased and carbon dioxide was reduced. The most remarkable gains were made how workers plan, stay focused and strategized.

The second phase of the study moved from the lab into the real world. 100 knowledge workers were tested for cognitive function in 10 IAQ tested buildings throughout the U.S. Six of the buildings were “green certified”. The study found that workers in the green buildings scored higher on the range of tests. Along with the improved IAQ factors of ventilation, VOCs, and CO2, workers in environments with comfortable temperature and humidity levels also performed better.

“What should leaders and building managers take away from these findings?” says Mr. Allen, “The short answer is that better air quality in your office can facilitate better cognitive performance among your employees.”

What Can Be Done to Improve IAQ and Performance?

Even though most executives/managers focus on energy costs, and rightly so, 90% of a business’ operating costs tied to its workers. In fact, one study reported that building managers tend to overestimate energy costs by multiple factors!

Managers should then look at IAQ indicators to see where improvements can made. Building scientists that specialize in IAQ testing can be called upon to conduct a survey of a facility and report the findings. Data from such a study can be used to correct any deficiencies found, as well as, optimize areas that could potentially cause issues. With the prevalence of deferred maintenance programs cost is always an issue. However, the cost of improving IAQ is far lower than most think.

The joint Harvard study modeled costs with four different types of HVAC systems in different climate zones with different energy sources in the U.S. The estimates show that doubling ventilation rates would be less than $40 per person, per year. When energy-efficient systems are used, the cost would be less than $10 per person per year. The study also used the benchmarked cognitive function testing results and paired the percentile increase in scores to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate the BENEFITS to employee performance from doubling ventilation rates are $6,500 per person per year! This doesn’t include other health benefits from hygienically cleaning HVAC systems to avert Sick Building Syndrome and the human health issues it can cause, such as allergies, asthma and absenteeism.

Moving forward it would be a good practice for managers to incorporate IAQ health impacts into their cost-benefit calculations when planning. When employee performance/productivity benefits are clearly shown the C-suite can then see the correlation between spending to enhance facilities and reducing human resource costs.

Hopefully, our hypothetical CEO and his software company are open minded to making improvements based on research like this. Maybe they will even develop the next IAQ testing app.

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Air quality issues of mold and asbestos temporarily closes Indiana Avenue Elementary school, second time this month

Air quality issues of mold and asbestos temporarily closes Indiana Avenue Elementary school, second time this month

Schools Superintendent Robert Zega said school officials are working with environmental consultants to determine the best course of action for remediation after air quality issues of mold and asbestos have resulted in the closure, reopening and again re-closure of the elementary school on Indiana Avenue in the Iselin section of the township.

Students had been attending split sessions at Iselin Middle School since March 5.

 The elementary school reopened on March 19 after test results of mold had been resolved; however, on March 28, the students were back at Iselin Middle School.

“Recent test results have caused us to temporarily close the school, out of an abundance of caution,” Zega said in a statement on March 28. “The health of our students and staff is, and always will be, our top priority. Therefore, the students will be attending Iselin Middle School on split sessions until we are able to re-open. We appreciate the patience of our entire school community throughout this difficult process.”

As of March 29, asbestos was found in a classroom on desks, according to a test report posted on the school district’s website.

School officials did not give a time frame on how long Indiana School will be closed.

On Jan. 27, RAMM Environmental Services, Inc., of Fairlawn, Bergen County, conducted an indoor air/surface quality assessment report for the school’s principal’s office, main office and a classroom, which found levels of mold exceeding outdoor concentrations in the tested areas.

The elementary school was temporarily closed on Feb. 23 and the students were off from school for a week.

On March 1, Zega sent a letter to parents and guardians of students at Indiana School to explain the temporary closure of the school and the decision to hold split sessions at Iselin Middle School.

Zega said in the letter Iselin Middle was a reasonable choice because it is relatively close and it has the capacity for the 600 students from School No. 18.

The Woodbridge Township Education Association (WTEA) had McCabe Environmental Services, LLC, of Lyndhurst, Bergen County, collect various types of asbestos samples from within the school.

 Asbestos contamination was found in a debris sample that was collected from atop of a suspended ceiling tile system.

“Based on the data we have collected we can conclude that the locations tested are not considered an asbestos hazard for occupancy at this time,” John H. Chiaviello, vice president at McCabe Environmental Services, said in a letter to Brian Geoffroy, president of the WTEA, on March 16.

However, he said any disturbance of the ceiling system could pose a potential health hazard if the debris is not addressed.

“Based on our observations, there is no evidence of remnant ceiling plaster, fireproofing, pipe or other insulation above the drop ceiling that could be the source of the asbestos detected in the sample,” Chiaviello said. “Since the school is a one-story building, along with recent solar panel modifications to the roof deck, we suspect the source to be the roofing materials that have been disturbed and penetrated through to the ceiling system below.”

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Big Commercial Fans Spin Indoor Air Quality Into the Future

Large commercial ceiling fans are typically seen as making a bold statement in a building’s design, but all you have to look at is the science behind the big fan to understand that these large fans are more than just for show and more about how they make people feel. Design is being redefined according to the human comfort of the end-user, and now more than ever, design is about helping the clients become more resourceful, resilient, and regenerative. From facilities as large as industrial warehouses to buildings as small as specialty coffee shops, large industrial fans in many shapes and sizes are being utilized—seemingly everywhere—to create environments where people want to gather and thrive.

The Crack Shack restaurant in Encinitas, CA uses their MacroAir fans to help circulate the nearby cool coastal air within the restaurant via their open air concept design.
The Crack Shack restaurant in Encinitas, CA uses their MacroAir fans to help circulate the nearby cool coastal air within the restaurant via their open air concept design.
Austin Beerworks is located the in vibrant city of Austin Texas. The MacroAir fan allows the brewery to be able to serve quality beer while keeping customers cool and comfortable. Large industrial ceiling fans are a great fit for breweries!
Austin Beerworks is located the in vibrant city of Austin Texas. The MacroAir fan allows the brewery to be able to serve quality beer while keeping customers cool and comfortable. Large industrial ceiling fans are a great fit for breweries!

Breathe Well, Be Well
MacroAir invented the large ceiling fan not just for cooling or heating but for a greater purpose; the fans create comfort which ultimately leads to human wellness. If you have ever been cooped up inside a building with stale and stagnant air, you are aware of how that feeling can slow you down a bit. In contrast, if you have worked in a building that has good air movement and ventilation, you can find yourself being more motivated, productive, and collaborative.

These large commercial ceiling fans help thermally equalize a space by moving air in the most efficient way possible. The fans use their long airfoil blades to move high volumes of air at low speeds, which provides a balanced airflow without the kind of disruptive air movement that could blow the hat off of your head. The end result is a gentle breeze that circulates the air, improving comfort and indoor air quality. This puts less demand on HVAC systems, reduces moisture, and, most importantly, makes the occupants of a building feel more comfortable.

What Do the Fans Do to You?

Lift Truck Center’s MacroAir fan acts as an efficient cooling solution for the company’s warehouse. Their MacroAir fan has a light kit with custom red blades to also stand out as an aesthetically pleasing touch to the space.
Lift Truck Center’s MacroAir fan acts as an efficient cooling solution for the company’s warehouse. Their MacroAir fan has a light kit with custom red blades to also stand out as an aesthetically pleasing touch to the space.

Think about the feeling you get when you are outdoors on a day when the air is crisp and the temperature is just right. You feel motivated to engage in outdoor activities because you feel good. Running, walking your dog, eating dinner outside, or socializing with friends is more appealing when fresh air is a factor. Large ceiling fans can help bring that feeling of being outdoors by getting fresh air into an indoor space through optimal air movement. When the fans create a comfortable environment, human comfort and productivity increase.

Crave Café in Australia had a MacroAir large ceiling fan installed into their café space. They are able to effectively cool off their customers and reduce the amount of energy spent on HVAC.
Crave Café in Australia had a MacroAir large ceiling fan installed into their café space. They are able to effectively cool off their customers and reduce the amount of energy spent on HVAC.

Fans for Human Wellness
The end user’s demand for buildings to provide a human wellness factor will only continue to grow. Next-generation airflow solutions—including large ceiling fans—are becoming a primary factor that not only impacts the entire built environment but also affect how occupants feel inside of various spaces. So when you walk into building and you feel a gentle breeze and the temperature feels just right, don’t forget to look up at and see the future of indoor air quality.

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Household products make surprisingly large contributions to air pollution

smog over LA

AUSTIN, Texas — To reduce your impact on air quality, you might expect to trade in your gas-guzzling clunker of a car — but you can also unplug those air fresheners.

In urban areas, emissions from consumer goods such as paint, cleaning supplies and personal care products now contribute as much to ozone and fine particulate matter in the atmosphere as do emissions from burning gasoline or diesel fuel.

The finding is largely a sign of success, study coauthor Brian McDonald said February 15 during a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Steps taken to clean up car exhaust over the past few decades have had a huge effect, and as a result, “the sources of air pollution are now becoming more diverse in cities,” said McDonald, a chemist at Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colo.

VOC-emitting consumer products


Everyday products like these emit a bouquet of volatile organic compounds that contribute to air pollution. A spritz of perfume or a spray of disinfectant has a small effect, but frequent use of these products by millions of people adds up to a big impact.

  • Shampoo
  • Hairspray
  • Deodorant
  • Perfume
  • Air fresheners
  • Cleaning sprays
  • Laundry detergent
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Glue
  • Paint

“When you have a big mountain in front of you, it’s difficult to know what lies behind it,” says Spyros Pandis, a chemical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who wasn’t part of the study. Now, other sources of air pollution are becoming more visible.

The new study, also published in the Feb. 16 Sciencefocused on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are derived from petroleum. These are a diverse array of hundreds of chemicals that easily vaporize and make their way into the atmosphere. Some VOCs can be harmful when directly inhaled — molecules released by bleach and paint make people lightheaded, for example.

Beyond their immediate effects, VOCs react with other molecules in the air, such as oxygen and nitrogen oxides, to generate ozone as well as fine particulate matter. (Those nitrogen oxides come, in large part, from vehicle exhaust.) High levels of fine particulate matter make it hard to breathe and contribute to chronic lung problems (SN: 9/30/17, p. 18). And while ozone high in the atmosphere helps shield Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, at ground level, it mixes with fine particulates to form breath-choking smog.

Over a period of six weeks, the researchers collected air samples in Pasadena, located in the notoriously smoggy Los Angeles valley. They also evaluated indoor air quality measurements made by other scientists. The team traced the molecules found in these air samples to their original sources using databases that show the specific volatile organic compounds released by specific products.

Consumer products that emit VOCs have an outsized effect on air pollution, the team found. About 15 times as much oil and natural gas is used as fuel than ends up in consumer products ranging from soaps, shampoos and deodorants to air fresheners, glues and cleaning sprays. And yet these everyday products were responsible for 38 percent of the VOC emissions, the researchers found, while gasoline and diesel emissions accounted for only 33 percent. Consumer products also contributed just as much as fuels to chemical reactions that lead to ozone and fine particulate matter. The emissions from consumer products also dwarfed those from the production of oil and gas, called upstream emissions.

Extra emissions

Consumer goods like paints, inks and bath products make up only a tiny sliver of the sources releasing volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. But they have an outsized impact, contributing about as much to VOC emissions as gasoline and diesel do.

Emission sources: Use versus contribution to smog


Regulations on VOCs vary by state, but most consumer products are regulated only for their potential contribution to ground-level ozone, not fine particulate matter. This study makes it clear that even though most volatile emissions from consumer products happen indoors, that air eventually gets vented outside, where it can contribute to larger-scale atmospheric pollution in multiple ways, McDonald said.

More work needs to be done to see whether other cities show the same pattern, the researchers add, as well as to figure out which kinds of VOCs might be particularly problematic. Because there are so many VOCs and they all react differently in the atmosphere, there’s still a lot to learn about which might be most likely to form fine particles and therefore be the best targets for reduction.

Part of the challenge with many these volatile-emitting products is that they’re specifically designed to evaporate as part of their job, says study coauthor Jessica Gilman, an atmospheric chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder. For some products, like paints, there are low-VOC formulations available. But finding replacements for key ingredients in other products can be hard. Picking unscented versions of personal care products when possible and using the minimum amount necessary can help reduce the impact on air quality.


IAQ Issues Flare Up Schools

Indoor air quality (IAQ) remains a topic of discussion in many institutional and commercial facilities as the general public pays greater attention to the role buildings play in both environmental friendliness and the health and comfort of occupants and visitors. For some building occupants, though, IAQ is more than a topic of conversation. It is a critical health consideration. Consider the case of two schools in Laurel Bay, S.C.

Run by the U.S. Department of Defense, Laurel Bay is made up of more than 1,000 homes near the Marine Corps Air Station and Parris Island bases. Its two oldest schools — Galer Elementary School and Bolden Elementary/Middle School — serve children of military families living on the bases, according to an article in The Beaufort Gazette. The military disputes that the school buildings impacted staff members’ health, pointing to tests done in 2011 and 2012 that showed no dangerous levels of a known carcinogen, according to standards set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Learn more about the most common sources of IAQ problems.

But under different standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, three rooms in one of the schools had excessive levels of benzene. Experts say EPA standards are more protective of students’ and teachers’ health than OSHA’s. An exact number, or even an estimate, of Laurel Bay teachers who had serious medical conditions while working in the schools was unavailable. Neither union officials who represent the staff members nor a spokeswoman with the Department of Defense schools division would provide an estimate to the Packet and Gazette in 2010.

Read about the role of technology and training in preventing IAQ issues.

“The investigators indicated higher-than-average breast cancer diagnosis in the years prior to the study,” says Department of Defense Education Activity spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis. “No other major medical trends have been reported recently.”

In 2010, a number of teachers and other staff at both Galer and Bolden schools approached their union, alarmed by the number of employees being diagnosed with serious illnesses and infertility issues. About 80 staff members worked in the two schools around that time. The military said it did not know how many employees requested an investigation into the schools, though Kanellis told the Packet and Gazette that the number is “believed to be as many as nine.”

In the summer of 2010, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control ruled out contamination at the schools from drinking water or asbestos.

Worries about the schools reappeared last January. That is when the wife of a U.S. Marine previously stationed at Parris Island posted the YouTube video, describing the 2015 leukemia diagnosis of her daughter, Katie Whatley. Amanda Whatley’s family lived on Laurel Bay from 2007 until 2010, and she questioned the connection the base played in her daughter’s diagnosis.

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