Air is all around us, and breathing is an essential part of being alive. We know these things, and yet it can be easy to take such an important process for granted.
Caught up with the day-to-day operations of life, we sometimes forget that we are living, breathing creatures.
How do you test air quality at work? To test air quality at work, you must gather as much information as possible. Check the temperature, humidity, and airflow in your building. Inspect the ventilation, and make sure the heating and cooling systems are clear. Look out for standing water or leaks, and, if necessary, test for radon and asbestos.
Of course, all of this should only be done with the authorization of your employer
In this article, we will explore ways you can test your environment and the air around you. We will also discuss what you might be breathing at work and the dangerous effects that harmful air can have.
How to Test Air Quality
When you begin testing your air quality, things can get a little complicated. The reason for this is that there are many possible pollutants, and each has its testing conditions attached.
This staggering variety means there aren’t any one-size-fits-all testing options that will handle every environment.
The best way to approach testing the air quality indoors and at work is to do it in a stepwise fashion, gathering as much information as you can.
Along the way, use any symptoms you might experience as indicators to help refine your testing and isolate the problems that may be causing them.
Temperature and Airflow
Start by checking the basics of your environment. You or your employer should have the tools and capacity to check aspects like the temperature, humidity, and airflow of the workplace regularly.
The thermostat should control and maintain the temperature around the building. Ideally, your building should also have humidity controls available, like dehumidifiers, which will affect the moisture in the air.
Both humidity and temperature can dramatically affect air quality.
Airflow helps facilitate temperature and humidity balance by moving the air around. Flowing air also helps reduce mold and other fungi. Often, a simple fan can make an environment considerably more comfortable as well.
Ventilation and Inspections
On top of this, you can inspect the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (source).
These supply air throughout the building and should be well-maintained. HVAC systems also regulate the flow between outside and the inside atmosphere, providing a balance in pressure and fresh air.
Ask your employer to get walk-throughs conducted of the entire building to check vulnerable areas properly. These checks should include ventilation systems.
Critical problems to watch out for include water damage, leaks, dirt, or pests and their droppings.
Standing water can also be a health risk because bacteria can quickly grow in it. Wherever water may collect — like humidifiers, air conditioning units, or rooftops — must be checked and cleaned out.
For certain buildings, the appropriate personnel should regularly carry out tests and inspections for Radon or Asbestos.
There are specific regulations in place that govern these testing outlines, and your employer should be aware of them.
Other Potential Sources
Any machines around the workplace, especially older ones, can also be responsible for producing dangerous air (source).
Technology and related chemicals can often pose a health risk when equipment is not correctly maintained and stored safely.
Another possible source of indoor air pollution is the kitchen, where common food-based contaminants lurk.
Old food and organic waste can be a cesspool for bacteria and other dangerous invaders. Ensure that everyone is cleaning up after themself and that the necessary personnel takes the trash out promptly.
Struggling to Identify the Source?
The truth is that there are some cases of low air quality that will be very difficult to detect and only manifest symptoms way down the road. Sometimes, at that point, there is nothing you can do.
The need to nip such problems in the bud means there is no better solution than preemptive prevention. It also highlights the importance of having the right technology to detect these problems early.
Air Quality Testing Tools
The latter of these simply refers to the different air quality testing devices that are available on the market. These can get quite pricey, but often provide an excellent and reliable verdict on the quality of air in your environment.
The problem is knowing when it is time to get one of these devices involved while, at the same time, ensuring that you do not put all your trust in these tools.
As with your senses and symptoms checks, these tech tools will not be able to give you a complete picture every time. They are there to provide additional information and add to the already growing information on your environment.
Still, there are many practical advantages to having some of these air testing tools around, especially if you feel there might already be risks.
Specific tools test single sources of air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and similar deadly gasses. When the piece of technology is explicitly directed at a contaminant, it can have a much more significant and more reliable effect.
The problem here is that there are simply too many pollutants to have a device to test for each one.
Keep Inspections Regular
The truth is that the best way to stay healthy is to take measures to avoid getting sick in the first place. In regards to air quality, this involves making sure that the state of your indoor air never reaches dangerous levels.
Employers should make sure to get inspections and renovations done on the building regularly, keeping their important ventilation and problem spots from getting compromised.
Air ducts provide air throughout the building and therefore require a good deal of attention when dealing with air quality problems.
Fortunately, most ducts don’t disperse any harmful pollutants because few pollutants make it through the system and out the other side.
The return ducts are larger and shielded with filters to avoid as many pollutants entering the system in the first place.
In any case, inspecting the vents for any signs of damage or excessive moisture is still a good idea. The buildup of mold and similar pollutants can begin in the ventilation systems and endanger the air of the entire building should they persist.
With these cases, the damage to vents is often noticeable and will leave some evidence behind like smells or specific areas of invasion.
Keeping Employees Informed
By keeping everyone at the workplace informed and educated on the topic of air quality, you can also help spur immediate action when problems arise.
Creating a well-informed environment gets everyone working on maintaining the air quality and, as a result, provides a greater safety net to catch any problems before they get out of hand.
Coworkers acting as a team offers immeasurable benefits to all aspects of the workplace.
If you or a colleague feel ill, see a doctor for advice on identifying the problem. Speak to your colleagues about these activities and share any information that may affect each other. Together, there are a lot more opportunities to prevent these risks.
Fostering Healthy Lifestyles
One of the best ways to combat the risks of bad air quality is to live a health-conscious lifestyle. By promoting healthy habits at work, employers can develop an environment that is more resilient to external dangers, more enthusiastic about their work, and better equipped to handle the air quality around them.
Groups like the American Lung Association provide support to organizations that develop these resources and initiatives at work. These initiatives help save on health costs for the companies adopting these habits while simultaneously creating healthier employees.
The Importance of Understanding Air Quality
The EPA uses an index called the Air Quality Index (AQI) to rate the atmosphere of a given environment. The AQI provides data points to help measure your air and environment all around the world (source).
From the airnow.gov website, you can simply enter your zip code to find the AQI of your area. Another useful tool is the World’s Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index.
Regularly checking your air can inform you of any critical and possibly dangerous changes to it. This need for information is why there are satellites set up to monitor these values and calculate the AQI of different areas.
The AQI runs from a score of 0 to 500, with the latter being the worst-case scenario. Across this spectrum, there are six different stages, each affecting a greater pool of the population until eventually everyone is affected by the dangerous air conditions.
A score of over 300 on the AQI is hazardous to everyone involved.
The AQI primarily deals with the general air quality around the area, including both indoor and outdoor environments.
Other indoor-specific pollutants could be involved in creating a harmful environment, and we need to address these on top of the general climate evaluated by the AQI.
Possible Air Pollutants
Now that we have a measure to test air quality let’s take a look at the specific pollutants that we can expect to encounter inside.
If the outside air in your environment is within acceptable AQI values and you are still experiencing discomfort, then the likely culprit is from something indoors.
Pollutants indoors can cause much more harm because they can reach significant percentages of the overall air available, meaning much higher doses.
The list of common indoor pollutants includes asbestos, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, radon, second-hand smoke, and emissions from combustion appliances like stoves or heaters (source).
There are still more of these possible pollutants that can create dangers indoors and, as such, we must develop methods for identifying these changes in our environment and take action as soon as possible.
Risks of Poor Air Quality
Now that we’ve discussed testing and avoiding poor air quality, there are a few risks of which to be aware. Understanding these risks serves to better prepare and motivate us to keep our air quality acceptable.
Information is one of the most potent tools against lousy air quality, so let’s start by addressing the more immediate health risks from air pollutants.
These health risks will vary from person to person, depending on a variety of factors. Some people are more resistant than others when it comes to changes in the air, and our general health, age, and experiences all help shape these risks.
This variety can make checking with others in your environment a more complicated procedure, but one still worth doing should you detect any problems.
When it comes to short-term risks, we are referring to symptoms that will arise relatively quickly and often dissipate rather fast as well once there is no longer the risk of exposure.
Things like headaches, shortness of breath, allergies, or coughing can be possible indicators that there are contaminants in the air. Short-term issues will likely aggravate any preexisting problems, like asthma and similar respiratory illnesses.
The problem is that there are often multiple causes for these sorts of symptoms, so isolating the reason for some of these may be difficult.
The best bet with these is to try and be as sensitive about these changes as possible, and, should they occur regularly, go and see a doctor for additional council. Again, the best combatant against the dangers of bad air quality is information.
These are often the most difficult to identify and can cause the most harm to those involved. When our environment changes slowly, it can be tough to notice on a day-to-day basis. After a while, the change can become significant and dangerous.
It can take months or sometimes years for symptoms to show up in these cases and, by this time, the damage is already done.
Long-term damage includes some of the more debilitating diseases like heart disease and cancer, which often have a variety of possible triggers that can accumulate over the years.
Due to the difficulty in catching these symptoms before it is too late, there is a significant onus on preemptive measures when it comes to maintaining your indoor air quality.
Any positive changes we can make to our environment can be significant as the years pass.
Regular check-ups with a doctor and maintaining a healthy lifestyle helps in these situations because any changes in your health can then be spotted quickly and isolated.
Exercise is usually great for this because it pushes the body and forces it to use as much of its processes as possible, essentially vetting the system for any potential faults.
Symptoms of Bad Air Quality
Any symptoms you develop at work might be caused by the air quality. Use these and your general senses, like smell, to help inform your tests.
Headaches and fatigue are some of the more subtle symptoms of poor air. Reduced oxygen intake can lead to both of these and generally suggests that there are other particulates in the air taking up space.
Difficulty breathing and aggravated asthma also generally mean that there is a problem with air quality. Sometimes, this can be as simple as low airflow; other times, it is indicative of a more dangerous situation.
Take note of the severity of such problems and the locations that you might experience them.
Some of the pollutants in the air can be a little more subtle with the way they affect us. In these instances, it can be a lot harder to link cause and effect.
Using Your Symptoms to Help
Be aware of your environment should you experience symptoms. If you are getting sicker in certain areas of your workplace, then these are the most likely culprits.
Symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, and even headaches can appear quickly after the incident.
Couple any symptoms you notice with any strange smells. Now that you know you’re getting a headache in the breakroom and it feels quite stuffy, try to detect if there are any peculiar odors around.
If you can’t detect anything, it could just be poor ventilation with the outside air and may only require opening a window. Strange smells or noticeable moisture in the room could be something else entirely.
By combining your senses and your symptoms, you can get a general sense of where the bad air is coming from and how dangerous it could be. At this point, it is time to act and make changes as fast as possible.
There is a wide range of possible air pollutants and risks attached to bad air quality. These risks are why keeping an informed position and level head on the matter is essential.
We don’t want to cause panic in our workplaces, but we don’t want to be caught off guard by any avoidable risks. Like anything, there is a balance to maintain.
Start by keeping informed of the air quality in your area. Remain vigilant at work, and if you detect any symptoms or strange signs that suggest lousy air quality, then act fast.
Our health is the most critical asset we have available and one richly deserving of our attention and dedication.