Pollution in the Workplace

Indoor air quality impacts employee safety and happiness

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By Emily Jones

New pollution monitoring platforms and devices have placed a great amount of power in the palms of haze-beleaguered Beijingers. Gadgets that measure air quality indexes, once wielded only by experts, can now be accessed by employees and building tenants to measure poor air quality in work environments.

The Dec. 10 AmCham China event “Every Breath We Take” opened up a discussion about indoor air quality and how companies can take action to ensure employee health, happiness and performance.

“The real danger is that 75 percent of PM2.5 – or particulate matter sized 2.5 microns or smaller – finds its way into our buildings from outside,” said Raefer Wallis, CEO and Founder of RESET, a building project certification with a focus on occupant health.

Wallis spoke alongside Eric Hirsch and Steven McCord of Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), Louie Cheng of PureLiving China and Wen Zhenguo of Jiaming Group – all experts in different aspects of the issue.

Impact on health and productivity

During the event, JLL and PureLiving China shared some of the findings from their joint white paper, Every Breath We Take – Transforming the Health of China's Office Space.

“A Harvard study demonstrated that good indoor air correlates with nearly twice the level of productivity compared to average air quality, and this is increasing in significance for talent attraction and retention in China,” the report states.

The World Health Organization cautions against exposure to an air quality index of 25 or higher for periods of longer than 24 hours, a limit often surpassed in Beijing office spaces. If workers are exposed to high concentrations of particulates for a prolonged period of time, it may affect individual performance and overall performance goals.


Pollutants in the workplace

When doing business in an environment with a high rate of voluntary turnover – 14.3 percent of businesses in China, according to a 2013 survey by Aon Hewitt – comfortable and clean office spaces free of harmful particulates are crucial to retaining talent. If the company fails to earn employee confidence in its ability to safely provide the worker both an office and living space with satisfactory air quality, premature termination of contracts may result and incur huge expenses for firms.

"We cannot change conditions outside, but we can do something to control the situation indoors, which also happens to be where we spend most of our time working," said McCord, Head of Research for North China at JLL.

Assess, act and assure

Cheng, Founder of PureLiving China, suggests a three-step approach to improving indoor air quality in a building and finding a balance between satisfactory air quality, energy-efficiency and cost-savings: assess, act and assure.

The assessment phase begins by analyzing a workplace and looking at what systems are already in place. Cheng recommends following a path of due diligence by hiring a third-party to achieve an accurate picture of the efficacy of current systems.

The action step involves establishing the most cost-effective and energy-efficient method that will achieve the optimum level of air quality improvement.

Although portable air filtration devices may be suitable to rooms smaller than 20 square meters or temporary office spaces, their utility is subject to human error, such as the changing of filters, control of power and incorrect placement.

“The best bang for your buck is to filter the lungs of a building,” Cheng said. “We found that mechanical systems have the most impact regardless of building type.”

Air that has been sitting indoors is polluted with chemical emissions from office furniture, mold, odors and occupant respiration. A fresh-air system brings outdoor air into a building.

Outdoor air such as that found in Beijing, however, contains high levels of particulates that must be filtered before entering the space or filtered by systems once inside, Cheng said.

In-ceiling systems offer an efficient solution for large areas. According to PureLiving China, the cost of a portable filtration unit per 1 percent of PM2.5 reduction over a three-year period per 1,000 square meters amounts to RMB 4,000, while in-ceiling air purifiers and filtered air handling units present more cost-effective options at RMB 1,750 and RMB 750, respectively.

Recent advances in on-demand automation systems ensure low energy usage in non-working hours, streamlining the process to achieving consistent, satisfactory air quality.

A combination of fresh-air system, in-ceiling purification and filtered air handling units upon proper analysis of the space is the best solution, Cheng said.

Cheng's last step is assurance. This entails continuous monitoring of the space. He recommends incorporating indoor air quality monitoring into the company's budget to identify how the system is performing, avoid expensive retrofits down the line and provide occupants with peace of mind.

“It costs money to maintain (a mechanical system), but you must do so or it will stop working,” he said.

Also crucial to achieving cleaner indoor air are the end occupants. Cheng suggested training occupants to ensure familiarity with monitoring measurement standards, such as the differences between air quality index and mass concentration.

“The best results come from when landlords and tenants work together to ensure the systems achieve pre-established goals,” Cheng said.

Clear benefits

When talent and employee productivity are key to company output and success, and when staffing costs account for the majority of operating costs, investing in a safe working environment can bring great returns to a business. These returns may include reduced sick days or increased motivation among employees.

Furthermore, buildings which strive for RESET performance-based standards present a revenue opportunity for smart developers to capitalize on satisfactory and superior indoor air quality of their buildings in the marketplace. The certification program, established in 2013, has publicly certified 15 buildings which met its criteria. Air monitors must measure PM2.5, TVOC, CO2, relative humidity and temperature.

“Investments in indoor air quality help to differentiate office buildings from competitors, better enabling them to retain value in any market,” Wallis of RESET said. “Those in real estate who are equipped with the proper knowledge and respond quickly will have much to gain.”

McCord of JLL emphasized the HR side of the indoor air issue.

"Employee expectations are rising in every way,” he said. “(Indoor air quality) is going to be an important tool for employee retention and overall employee satisfaction."

Emily Jones is a Business Center Intern.

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