How Ventilation Systems Can Help Improve Workplace Air Quality

Learn how upgrading workplace ventilation systems can help support employee health and wellbeing.

In the race to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission in office spaces, understanding ventilation systems, filtration and air flow suddenly has become a matter of great urgency. 

According to workplace design experts, we should maintain that focus on improving indoor air quality long after the virus retreats. “It took a major event to make people stop and actually think about it, but air quality is an issue that affects us all of the time,” says Sara Robinson, healthcare architect and associate at McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture. “You don’t realize it, but things like pollutants, inadequate ventilation and humidity levels can significantly impact our lives on a daily basis.”

In addition to facilitating the spread of viruses, poor ventilation can contribute to a buildup of airborne particles from dust, fungus and rodents, as well as harmful levels of contaminants like radon, other chemicals and pesticides. Pollutants in indoor air in workplaces may also play a part in many reported health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA notes short-term effects such as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; headaches; dizziness; and fatigue. Extended exposure has been linked to respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer.

Benefits of Improving Workplace Ventilation Systems

There are ways businesses can identify and address areas of concern — and benefits to be gained from the effort. “Whether it’s lowering employee absences and claims due to illnesses or reducing turnover by improving the working environment, there are lots of tangible results to be had,” says Robinson. 

A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study suggests that increasing the supply of outside air can lower exposure to carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as to other indoor contaminants. 

The CDC recommends increasing the circulation of outdoor air by opening air dampers beyond minimum settings, opening windows and doors, and/or placing fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows. (Consult an HVAC professional for specific recommendations.)

“There is plenty of research out there that shows increased ventilation and good quality air can help reduce downtime and increase productivity,” agrees Greg Hudson, mechanical engineer and project manager at RMF Engineering. “It’s an upfront investment that people have to make, but it’s been shown to be worth it.”

Improving Workplace Air Quality by Upgrading Ventilation Systems 

Businesses that upgrade their ventilation systems may well enjoy a lasting benefit from the investment. “Our customers looked for the best filtration they could get right away,” says Neal Duffy, senior manager of facility solutions technical training at Staples, who works with companies to update current systems to MERV 13 filters and/or supplement them with air purification units. “The higher the filtration, the more work your HVAC system has to do to push the air through the filters. We saw a lot of movement during COVID to add air purification units, which helps circulate and clean the air with fewer contaminants.”

Location can also be a factor in how feasible it is to bring in more outside air. This is a steeper hurdle in areas where extreme temperatures or humidity can cause concerns about occupant comfort. “Pulling in air from outside does have an effect on the ability to heat and cool,” explains Hudson. Setting up a pre- or post-occupancy air flushing schedule is one way those hampered by climate can address contaminant buildup concerns while the building is occupied. 

“At the end of the day, we basically shift the unit to 100 percent outside air to push out anything that’s come into the building during the day,” he says. “It’s an easy controls modification that can be done on virtually any unit to clean the building out.” Changeouts are typically scheduled to take place an hour after the last person leaves for the day or two hours before the first person’s arrival.

Small Building Updates, Big Results

Longer term, companies may want to explore more ways to move the needle on air quality, many of which can address contaminants economically. Staples offers site analysis services, physically or virtually touring facilities to evaluate them for potential issues. 

“Once the assessment is accomplished, we look at what makes the most sense to address,” says Duffy, who notes that there are often economical ways to make a big impact. “Entrance matting is probably the least utilized method of controlling airborne pollutants. The right type, size and placement of matting can have an impact, depending on the building’s traffic and amount of soil captured.”

Vetting cleaning practices is another relatively simple change that can make a big difference in air quality. “Greener chemicals designed to be used around people are a better bet in many cases than aggressive degreasers that are not typically necessary for daily maintenance,” Duffy explains. “During the pandemic, well-meaning people employed methods of disinfectant that were not necessarily ideal for inhabitants or the building’s design.” 

For example, aerosol sprays meant to be used to disinfect in empty rooms may be unintentionally sucked up and distributed around a building, affecting workers. Alternative methods such as electrostatic sprayers designed to disinfect surfaces, as well as systems that employ ultraviolet light or bipolar ionization to break down pathogens, are worth exploring. 

Even simple things like the right commercial vacuum and vacuuming practices can help reduce dust particles in office air. “Changing the filter when you should and replacing the vacuum bag when it’s ¾ full can make a significant difference,” says Duffy, who notes that site visits also look at external factors that may be affecting indoor air. “Adding gutters to direct water away from the basement can be a big help. Any time you have dampness in the basement or a leak that brings water into the building, you have the possibility of mildew and mold being sucked into the HVAC system and distributed through the building.”

While issues like these existed long before COVID, the focus on indoor air prompted by the pandemic offers a rare opportunity for businesses to identify air quality concerns in the buildings where we live and work, and to look for ways to address them. “These are things that have long gone unchecked but that the general public hasn’t paid as much attention to in the past,” says Robinson. “Now that they’ve been brought to the forefront, businesses can use that momentum to create better environments for their employees.”