Is Your Workplace Healthy?
By Laura Southard



The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that at any moment 21.2 million Americans are working in 1.4 million offices, schools, factories and other buildings where indoor air pollution is a problem. It shocks some to realize that air pollution can be 2-5 times worse indoors than out. Scientific American recently reported that people are likely to have the "greatest contact with potentially toxic pollutants not outside, but inside the places they usually consider unpolluted, such as homes, offices and autos."

The carpeting in the front office, the cleaning supplies the janitorial staff uses, the copier and even the laser printer can all emit harmful fumes that can trigger an asthma attack, headache or other health problems among employees and clients. Often people who work in sick buildings report a wide range of vague symptoms ranging from headaches, eye and nose irritation, fatigue, depression and irritability. During the last two decades, there has been a strong emphasis on building energy efficient, super-insulated homes and offices, but without adequate ventilation and air exchange, hazardous chemicals can build up and get trapped inside. This, combined with the increased use of toxic materials and products has heightened our exposure to harmful chemicals. A recent report stated that 30% of all newly constructed or renovated buildings are considered "sick". What does this mean for businesses? Sick buildings can lead to a decrease in employee productivity, higher absentee rates, poor morale, and the loss of good workers to other jobs.

What can business do to protect their employees from potentially hazardous indoor work environments? One way is to prioritize the construction or remodeling of work facilities. The movement towards environmentally-sound construction and remodeling, especially here in the Northwest, addresses the concern about indoor air pollution and health. Since the mid-80's, as awareness about the evils of lead paint, asbestos and radon came to light, thousands of homeowners have taken action to improve their indoor environments. Professional Builder Magazine reports that 60% of buyers want "healthy house" features in a new purchase. Businesses are now catching on and taking action to create a healthier workspace. Business managers, builders and others are figuring out that prioritizing the indoor environment benefits everyone.

Take the case of Verifone, a California company that in 1993 experimented with designing and building a healthier workplace at their Costa Mesa facility. Veriphone spent extra time and money designing, and constructed a facility that reduced the use of chemicals and toxins, increased natural lighting and installed devices that would cut electrical consumption. What Veriphone got for its investment was both a reduction in energy consumption and an increase in employee productivity. Within 18 months the absentee rate for employees working in the new facility was down 40% and productivity was up 5%. Furthermore, Veriphone estimates that they will save about $110,000 per year in energy costs. This result was enough to sell senior Veriphone management on the wisdom of converting all their facilities into healthy work spaces.

Being "green" is no longer considered fringe or alternative, it simply makes good sense. It is becoming easier to obtain information, consultation, design services and products aimed at improving the workplace. A quick internet search produced a plethora of information resources, products and services for homes and businesses interested in improving their indoor environment. For example, mainstream companies like Glidden and Benjamin Moore have begun manufacturing low VOC paints which are virtually odor free and leave no lingering paint smell. IKEA carries wood flooring that was used in the American Lung Association Healthy House project. Companies like AFM of San Diego, manufacturer of full-line non-toxic building and remodeling supplies, including adhesives, water repellents, paints and stains. In New York, the architectural firm, Croxton Collaborative, specializes in the design of healthy buildings. Here in Seattle, we have the NW Eco-Builders Guild, an educational forum for builders, architects and others who wish to move towards healthier and more environmentally-friendly construction and design. Local firm, Seventh Generation Strategies of Friday Harbor, is also recognized as a leader in the field of green design, planning and building.

For many companies, designing and building a healthier work facility, may seem an expensive route to improving employee job satisfaction and well being. But when one considers the potential cost of an unhealthy workplace, it makes good business sense to take action. The cost of an unhealthy workforce can potentially cost businesses billions of dollars a year in higher healthcare premiums and lost productivity. If remodeling or new construction is not on the list of improvements, there are still simple steps businesses can take to improve the quality of the workplace. For example, insisting on the use of less toxic cleaning supplies, improving ventilation and air exchange, replacing carpets with wood floors, installing less toxic insulation, or utilizing air cleaning filtration systems can all make a big difference in a sick work place.

The point is that healthy workplaces are becoming a priority for managers, business owners, builders and employees. There may be a day when all new construction, all remodels, all workplaces and homes will be built with the health of the occupants in mind. Till then, asking for alternatives, consulting with Eco-design companies, and utilizing the tools that are now available will only increase the demand for technology, products and services to ensure a healthier workplace.

Laura Southard is co-owner of Healthy Environments of Seattle, WA, an internet company focusing on providing Healthy Homes and Workplaces products and information. You can access her website at   or e-mail  for more information or a catalog.

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