Over seven million Australians spend their working lives locked away from fresh air and sunshine in office blocks. While we worry about outdoor pollution, scientists have shown it may be far worse indoors it may even be why so many of us get sick at work.
There's a growing body of evidence to suggest that the modern office environment might actually be bad for our health. So in the interests of the great Australian tradition, 'the sickie', Dr Andrew Rochford examines the workplace to find out if there's such a thing as sick building syndrome.
Why should we care about our office environment? Because it can cost lives. Eleven cases of breast cancer at the ABC in Brisbane were enough for management to move the entire staff to another work place and they still don't even know why it happened.
In Melbourne four people died and 125 others contracted Legionnaire's disease after visiting the Aquarium in April 2000.
Of course, these are extreme examples as for most of us it's colds, flu, allergies and other mysterious bugs we just can't seem to shake off.
"There are a number of things that can make people sick inside a building," says Jo Robertson, an indoor air quality consultant. She took Andrew through a medium-sized modern office building that's home to about 100 workers. "What we go in and look for is a range of gases, dust, mould and bacteria, and any of those things if they get in high enough concentrations or quantities can cause some symptoms in some people."
Like most offices it's completely sealed off you can't even open a window if you wanted to. Workers are totally reliant on air conditioning to supply them with oxygen.
So how does that air conditioning work? Outside air is pumped through filters that remove the larger particles of dust before circulating it around the office through a network of vents and supply ducts. If the air conditioning system isn't properly maintained, the pollutants from the outside air can mingle with gases that gather inside the building, causing everything from headaches and coughs, to nausea and fatigue.
When assessing a building, Jo says she's particularly interested in looking at the supply air duct work and the way the air returns. Her team give buildings the once over, testing the air for humidity, microbe content, dust and gas levels.
In the case of the building Jo's inspecting with Andrew, what's the verdict? Is it a case of 'sick building syndrome'?
"Some preventative maintenance wouldn't go astray, however it doesn't mean there's a problem in the building at this point in time. We've tested the air, the air is safe. It just means it's about avoiding problems in the future," says Jo.
Jo's office tips:
- Maintain the air conditioning system.
- Ventilate areas with new carpets or fresh paint brand new carpets and fresh paint emit gases that can cause a variety of symptoms in sensitive people.
- Keep your office clean and dust mite free dust mites live in carpets and furnishings and are a major cause of asthma.
- Contact your office health and safety officer if you're worried about your workplace.
Thankfully, new building designs mean our work places may soon enhance health, rather than diminish it. So what does the future hold? Melbourne is home to what's touted as the most environmentally and health friendly building in Australia and possibly the world.
Melbourne's Council House 2, or CH2 as it's affectionately known, is home to over 500 city council staff. The atrium looks more like a rain forest and the building was built for the wellbeing of not only the environment, but also for the people that work in it it's the future of office design. It was opened in 2006 and has already received six awards for its green design.
What sets CH2 apart from all the other buildings? "I think the important thing to understand here is that we've worried about the people who actually work in the building," says Rob Adams, who was one of the architects on the design team his pride and joy is obvious.
The first thing you notice is that the windows can actually open and shut. Wooden slat louvres move across in the afternoon to block the heat of the sun and specially designed floor vents mean there's more cool and fresh air. As the air heats and rises, powerful roof turbines pull it straight up and out of the building, which means a complete air change every two hours so coughs and colds don't spread around the office.
Instead of sucking air through mechanical air conditioning units, roof radiators adjust the temperature of the fresh air. "They're like a hot radiator and a cool radiator. When you get into a very hot cycle during the day, we will actually bring cool water through here that is pre-cooled and helps lower the temperature," says Rob.
But is it a healthier temperature to work in? "The old building was always very cold; the air conditioning was always up and down. This is very constant so you don't feel like you leave with that dry throat," says an employee.
The stats on CH2 are pretty impressive when compared to your modern office building. CH2 uses 85 percent less electricity, 87 percent less gas and produces 13 percent less emissions!
So it all sounds fantastic but how much does it cost?
Architect Rob has the answer: "The normal cost of a building like this would have been around $40 million. We paid $51 million, so it's about a 20 percent increase. All of that we will recoup not only through energy efficiency but also through productivity within about 10 years."
Rob also estimates a five percent increase in staff performance and savings of over $1 million dollars in reduced sick leave.
So, CH2 is a viable alternative to current office buildings and that's great news whichever way you look at it. But let's be realistic, it's going to take a long time for all of our office buildings to start looking like the CH2. In the meantime, the worst thing you can do is lock yourself in an airless office; so get outside whenever you can and fill your lungs with some fresh air you just can't beat it!
- Do plants make your office healthier? A Murdoch university study found that plants made little difference to formaldehyde levels, but another study by the University of Technology in Sydney reported that plants substantially increased air quality. One thing no-one disputes the more plants you stock your office with, the better the feel-good factor!