Last reviewed 21 November 2017

With the Government being told by the High Court it must do more to improve air quality, what does this mean for environment managers? Dave Howell reports.

The debate over air quality and the practical steps needed to improve this have reached the High Court. Government is compelled to report on the practical action that needs to be taken to improve overall air quality particularly in cities, but the proposals have far-reaching consequences for environment managers tasked with ensuring their working environments are safe and also promote health and wellbeing.

A report by the Labour Party indicated that over half of the UK’s population are living in areas where air pollution including nitrogen dioxide is over the current legal limits. Published in June, the new proposals include a plan to ban petrol and diesel cars over the next two decades, but did not move to legislate for more clean air zones, as many had lobbied for.

In reaction to the new proposals, ClientEarth that brought the original court case against the Government branded the new proposals: “little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans and is underwhelming and lacking in urgency”. James Thornton, Chief Executive of ClientEarth said: “The 2040 diesel and petrol ban, while important, is a diversionary tactic and doesn’t deal with the public health emergency caused by illegally polluted air, now.”

With this backdrop of rising concern over air quality, environment managers can clearly see they will have to do more to safeguard the health of their employees. Outside of their estates general legislation will help, but where they have power to influence air quality, roadmaps can be developed that place air quality at the forefront of developments across their premises.

Research from the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) clearly indicates that improving indoor air quality should be a priority. The conclusions are stark, with 68% of respondents experiencing lapses in concentration and fatigue, and over half losing productivity. Commenting, BESA Chief Executive Paul McLaughlin said: “More and more people are becoming aware of the inadequate ventilation options in their offices, as well as the negative effect this is having on their health and their productivity.

“There is a perception that a lack of windows contributes to poor indoor air quality, but in reality, we need proper, well-maintained air conditioning and ventilation systems in place. We need to make our buildings a safe haven for occupants, to protect them from the worst impacts of outdoor pollution as well as providing good quality, healthy indoor air,” McLaughlin concluded.

Commenting on the survey results, the Royal College of Physicians’ Special Advisor on Air Quality, Professor Stephen Holgate said: “As we noted in our report: Every Breath We Take: the Lifelong Impact of Air Pollution, indoor air pollution is often an area which is overlooked. Poor ventilation is one part of this problem and, with the drive to reduce energy costs by making spaces more airtight, things will only get worse.”

Better environments

For environment and facilities managers, creating a healthy and engaging working environment is an ongoing process. Healthier indoor air quality requires a number of factors to work in balance. “Most traditional offices are rigid and restrictive with their designs, and can feel rather sterile in nature,” said Kenneth Freeman, Head of Innovation, Ambius.

Freeman continued: “The result can often be a detrimental effect on employees’ general sense of wellbeing and performance. UK offices are notoriously unproductive in comparison with many other developed economies, and much of this may well be as a result of poor design and an approach to space management that all too often fails to balance the need to cram as many people into as small a space as possible with the need to make workplaces comfortable and engaging.”

Taking practical action to improve air quality is a foundation all environment managers can use. Roger Martin, Indoor Specialist at SafeAirQuality was asked about the current state of indoor air quality in the UK.

“Indoor air quality in the workplace is doubtlessly better than in homes. Ventilation is the key — accumulation of poor air quality factors inspired by air-tightness legislation in the residential sector flies in the face of CIBSE guidelines on ventilation. When employees feel drowsy and ill at work, there is usually someone to complain to, that someone, facilities or environment management, nominated health and safety officer, HR, office manager, etc are increasingly trained and aware of the importance of ventilation and how the lack of it can present a clear hazard to health.”

From a manager’s point of view, how can they be more proactive with improving the air quality in their buildings?

“Risk assessment procedures apply perfectly in this area of responsibility. Identify a risk, quantify the relevant parameters, implementing control measures to reduce the risk, quantify and document any improvements and developing a plan for continued consideration.

“Investigating indoor air quality is a science and it`s really not for the untrained or unequipped — carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide are odourless. Volatile organic compounds may smell lovely or noxious or may equally be odourless, particulates can be hazardous — mould spores could be harmless or accumulated to levels associated with serious lung conditions. In short, if you haven’t got a range of calibrated electrochemical sensors, laser diffusion particle counters, photo-ionisation detectors, a laboratory to capture cultivate and identify microbial hazards and the training to interpret the data, then an environment manager would really only be guessing.”

Can better indoor air quality be retrofitted to existing buildings or does better indoor air quality really only result from better design and construction?

“Yes. Once you are able to appreciate that a ceiling mounted recycling air conditioning unit isn’t a fresh air supply unit, there are a range of ventilation solutions that can be retrofitted in almost any structure. Short-to-medium term control measures to improve indoor air quality also include some advances in air purifier technologies.”

As people spend 90% of their time indoors, the quality of the air they breathe is vital to maintain. The exposure to pollutants in an ongoing issue that environment managers wrestle with on a daily basis. Meeting current building regulations is only one component of a strategy that should also look at ventilation, temperature and how the working environment impacts on the air quality.

With the World Health Organization (WHO) ranking air pollution as the third most significant risk to health, environment managers can consider their estates on a micro level and manage the air quality to deliver real-world gains in productivity and wellbeing.

Often overlooked as simply an HVAC issue, promoting and maintaining good air quality requires multiple systems to work together. Environment managers have little power to influence the wider outdoor air quality for their workforces, but once inside their estates, they can take control and provide stimulating working spaces with high-quality air control as a key component of their services.