Last edited 10 Nov 2016

Sick building syndrome

Contents

[edit] Introduction

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is the term given to symptoms of acute health and/or comfort effects for which no specific cause can be found but that can be attributed to time spent in a particular building.

SBS differs from building related illness (BRI) because in the case of SBS, the specific cause is unknown, whereas BRI relates to allergic reactions or infections which can be directly attributed to being in the building.

While SBS is not limited to any particular type of building, it is most common in the workplace and is often found inopen plan offices, schools, libraries and museums. The symptoms may be localised to a particular room, part, or the whole of the building.

[edit] Symptoms of sick building syndrome

Anyone can be susceptible to SBS. Typically, either a combination of symptoms or one in isolation can occur and may vary from day to day without apparent cause. Symptoms generally improve or disappear upon leaving the building, and different people in the same building may experience different types or levels of discomfort.

The most common symptoms of SBS may include:

  • Headaches and dizziness.
  • Aches and pains.
  • Irritated, blocked or runny nose.
  • Eye and throat irritation.
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Shortness of breath or chest tightness.
  • Skin irritation.

SBS can affect anyone, however, the predominant sufferers are office workers in modern buildings with mechanical ventilation or air conditioning systems, without opening windows.

There is a higher risk for workers who are employed in routine work using display screen equipment and women are more at risk than men.

[edit] Causes of sick building syndrome

Since awareness of SBS developed in the 1970s, researchers have tried to pinpoint the precise causes, however, no one single cause has been identified. The most common risk factors believed to contribute to SBS include:

  • Inadequate ventilation.
  • Low humidity.
  • Inadequate sound insulation
  • A high level of noise created by piping or air-conditioning systems.
  • Fluctuations in room temperature.
  • Airborne particles such as dust, carpet fibres and fungal spores.
  • Airborne chemical pollutants such as cleaning products, ozone from photocopiers and printers, carbon monoxide, asbestos and external fumes such as traffic exhaust.
  • Poor lighting.
  • Electrostatic charges.
  • Poor standards of cleanliness.
  • Inadequate display screen equipment, causing glare or flicker.
  • Psychological factors such as stress or low staff morale.

[edit] Dealing with SBS

Building and building services design are associated with many of the factors relating to sick building syndrome, and this can be difficult to address effectively post-construction, requiring that very expensive works are carried out.

However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has compiled recommendations for employers on how to investigate the possible causes of sick building syndrome: HSE – How to deal with sick building syndrome. Advice includes:

  • Employee survey: This can determine the rate of symptom occurrence; identify any obvious causes and possible remedies that can be applied before the situation worsens. Surveys should also be carried out at later dates to ascertain whether the symptoms are persisting.
  • Building cleanliness checks: Make sure the building is being kept to a good level of cleanliness, that cleaning materials are being used and stored correctly, and so on.
  • Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system checks: Check the condition and cleanliness of air filters, humidifiers, de-humidifiers and cooling towers. In office environments, a humidity level of 40-70% is recommended by HSE. Also need to check maintenance schedules and ensure they are being followed correctly.

If symptoms persist it may be necessary to undertake a more detailed investigation by a building services engineer or another appropriately qualified consultant.

[edit] Planning and design

To avoid potentially expensive remedial woks, sick building syndrome needs to be considered at an early stage during the planning of new building work, renovation or changes-of-use. The following areas are of most critical importance:

[edit] Building services and internal environment:

[edit] Maintenance:

[edit] Work:

  • Management systems.
  • Organisation, including display screen equipment work.

[edit] Find out more

[edit] Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki

[edit] External references