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What can you do if you think you work in a "sick" building?

By December 17, 2008 - 10:52am
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How do you know if you work in a "sick" building and what can you do if you think you might?

Our building seems full of people with allergies and colds and respiratory

problems all the time (not just winter, though it's worse now). Some of us have started wondering if the building could be part of it, but we don't really want to ruffle feathers either.

How do people deal with this?

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I hate to say this, but the reality is that the property management companies responsible for office buildings often couldn't care less - even in our lovely, "green" river city! The occupant in question is the State and they wouldn't even take action. Their response to one employee's chronic condition that she tried to prove was caused by the vent stuff was to move her to another building. Did they take care of the "offending" building? No.

I know an OSHA director...wonder if I could get away with an anonymous report, hmmm...

December 18, 2008 - 5:21pm

I would ruffle some feathers, to find out if your building is "sick"!

A building I used to work at had a few employees who were afraid of this very thing, and asked management to have inspectors come out to check the building for mold (there was signs of water damage, so it made sense). The management agreed, and (luckily) no mold was found. The employees worked with management to determine other remedies.

You do have some options and a course of action, if you and other employees are truly concerned about the air quality at work.

Here is some information: "The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducts investigations of possible health hazards in the workplace. These investigations, called Health Hazard Evaluations (HHEs), are conducted under the authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the authority of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which authorize the Secretary of Health and Human Services, following a written request from employees, authorized representative of employees, or employers, to determine whether any substance normally found in the place of employment has potentially toxic effects in such concentrations as used or found."

You may have a similar organization, written policy or team at your job whose primary responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of its employees and/or of the physical building. "Indoor Environmental Quality" is a real concern, and may/may not be something that is fixable (employees are subjected to not only infectious diseases, but also fumes/toxins from equipment, cleaning products, pollutants, dust, mold, etc).

The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is also a good resource. "Nearly every employee in the nation comes under OSHA's jurisdiction with some exceptions such as miners, some transportation workers, many public employees, and the self-employed. In addition to the requirements to comply with the regulations and safety and health standards contained in the OSH Act, employers subject to the Act have a general duty to provide work and a workplace free from recognized, serious hazards."

At the OSHA site, under the "subtopics", you will notice a policy called the "Whistleblower and Non-Retaliation Protection", which provides employees protection if they choose to contact OSHA (again, your own company probably has its own department that is required to comply with OSHA standards, so you can check with them first. It is in your employer's best interest to comply with standards and take employee's requests seriously. The employee is protected under this act).

Hope this information is helpful! Let us know what you decide to do, and what you find out about how your company is meeting OSHA regulations. (It may be in an annual report, or on a company intranet site). Good luck!

December 18, 2008 - 2:36pm

The building I work in is definitely sick, and full of sickies. A co-worker and I were talking about this very issue today, between sneezes!

The building is not particularly old, but I think the vents have never been cleaned. Every time the central air system kicks on, people, myself included, start sneezing because of "stuff" that gets blown around. When you're pushing a lot of paper, running a lot of office machinery and computers, tracking who knows what in from the parking lot, and dealing with mold and humidity most of the year, it stands to reason that there would be a lot of junk in the air ducts.

"Sick" ambient air creates and perpetuates a sick office population. I keep antibacterial cleaning wipes and bleach-based "anywhere" spray in a desk drawer to routinely clean my phone, work surfaces and cubicle. I also keep antibacterial gel to clean my hands. But, there's no dealing with the darned overhead vents.

As for people who come to work with contagious conditions, that's another issue. In my workplace, the majority of us are government contractors who aren't paid for the Federal or State holidays, sick days or any other time off. So, it does become an issue for some who can't afford to take sick days. I get really annoyed by State employees who remark that we contractors can afford unpaid days because our pay rate is significantly higher! Who cares - unpaid is still unpaid.

Which brings up another, loosely related issue: teachers subjected to sick kids! Teacher friends complain about how parents send their sick kids to school because they - the parents - either can't afford to take the time off to stay home, or extra care expense to have someone stay home with the child. You parents with young children know what it's like to have one child "share" the ills with the siblings and you.

With all the political talk about nationalized health care, there also needs to be help for parents who have to take time off work to stay home with sick kids. Employers need to develop better social responsibility for their employees, as a company is only as good as the people who work there.

OK, I'm off my soap box, lol!

December 17, 2008 - 7:12pm
HERWriter Guide

You certainly could be on to something. Your building may be badly ventilated in the first place, or vents could be filthy and blocked.

You may be working surrounded by black mold that you don't know about which is a disaster for respiratory health. Those spores can do lasting damage.

Here are some symptoms of black mold:

Body Aches and Fatigue
Eye Irritation with Burning, Watery or Red Eyes
Food Intolerance and Allergy
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Memory Impairment
Mood Swings
Nasal and Sinus Congestion
Nose and/or Throat Irritation
Persistent Coughing
Profound Headache
Respiratory Problems (Asthma and other Infections)
Skin Rashes or Irritation
Suppression of Immune System


I am also wondering if there is asbestos in your building...

Can you tell us how old the building is? Is it a government (public) run building or a private one?

Some symtoms of exposure to asbestos:

Shortness of breath: This symptom
Lung tissue scarring
Increased likelihood of lung cancer
Respiratory failure
Lung fibrosis
Decreased lung elasticity


Also, my husband is getting over the flu and he said he's ok for work today (and he is without fever) but I told him not to go near people unless he had to. A lot of people in the workforce go to work sick, either due to a misguided work ethic or because they are not provided sick days. Is this a prevailing mindset in your building? A strong work ethic is to be admired but not if it causes sicknesses to be passed back and forth, because it's a cycle that never ends.

I hope you get to the bottom of things. But you are right - buildings absolutely cause sickness.

December 17, 2008 - 2:10pm
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