Clean air in the workplace

Thursday - 01 August 2019

Have you ever tried to work while sat in a really uncomfortable chair? Or attempted a conversation with a colleague in a high-noise environment? Chances are that if you have done either of these things, it was much more difficult than normal to get any work done.

That’s because creating a safe and comfortable working environment is as much about productivity as it is health and safety resolution. As an employer, you may be obliged to provide ergonomic seating for team members that sit for long periods and ear protection for employees that work in noisy environments. But doing so makes good commercial sense too.

In fact, the University of Warwick in the UK found that happy employees were on average 12% more productive1.

And one of the biggest factors towards employee comfort and health is clean air. Both the quality and quantity of air that a ventilation system delivers into a workplace can have a significant impact on employee happiness, wellbeing, productivity and attendance. Dictating both of these air quality factors is the HVAC filtration system.

Cut absence

92% of the worlds’ population breathe unsafe air according to the World Health Organization2. But while ‘air pollution’ may conjure up images of smog-filled urban environments, air quality is not just an outside issue. Indoor environments are typically 2 to 3 times more polluted than outdoors. And given we spend around 90% of our time indoors, it’s the quality of air inside buildings that plays a major role in our health.

Particularly if you operate in areas of localized high pollution, protecting your team from dangerous contaminants is part of your responsibility as an employer. But it’s not just a matter for health and safety, it also makes sense from a business perspective too.

Air pollution accounts for around US$225bn in lost labor income every year3. While you cannot do anything about the air that your employees breathe away from work, ensuring a safe level of air quality in your buildings can have a dramatic effect on absence and sickness rates.

That means cutting the level of particulates entering your building with air filters. But it’s also important to remember allergens too. In the UK alone, 3.2 million work days a year are lost to allergy-related absence4.

Reduce sick building syndrome

In the 1970s, efforts to improve energy efficiency saw the rise of more tightly insulated but poorly-ventilated buildings. These new buildings had lower levels of fresh air and higher levels of pollutants, leading to the first cases of sick building syndrome – with occupants suffering from eye irritation, headaches, coughing and chest tightness directly due to the indoor environment in which they were spending time.

Sick building syndrome is still an issue today. And one of the best ways to counteract its effects is to boost the amount of air entering your building. One research study found that increasing the air supply rate from 12 l/s to 24 l/s reduced short-term sick leave by 35%5. This study also estimated the value of increased ventilation to be US$400 per employee per year.

Improve productivity and performance

When your employees are at work, a ready supply of clean air will help them be more productive and effective too.

REHVA (Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning Associations) investigated the link between air quality and productivity by comparing typing speed and the number of units output. It found that poor air quality and elevated temperatures consistently lowered performance by up to 10%6.

Another study focusing on factory workers discovered that a 5 mg/m3 increase in particulate matter – a relatively small fluctuation that wasn’t uncommon during the study – reduced productivity by 3%7.

And air pollution affects employee problem solving and decision making too. Harvard scientists found that doubling ventilation rates in a clean indoor environment increased cognitive performance by more than 100%8.

What can you do?

Research has shown that spending just US$40 per person, per year on indoor air quality resulted in a US$6500 increase in employee productivity9. But as with any investment, maximizing your return is about choosing the right solution.

When it comes to air filters, increasing air flow or capturing particulates is relatively straightforward. The difficulty comes from doing both these things at the same time. If you increase filtration efficiency to improve the air quality, you are likely to choke the air flow and compromise the supply rate. If you go the other way and choose a filter to deliver high air flow rates, it typically means a filter with a lower particle separation efficiency that may lead to unsafe air quality.

The key is to find the happy medium between the two opposing factors – where a sufficient supply of safe air is being delivered at maximum energy efficiency. To do that, you need to look at the environment in which you operate to determine the filtration system that works best for you. MANN+HUMMEL’s eco16 program does exactly this by measuring the air quality inside and outside your building, and then configuring the ideal filter system for your individual building.

Another issue is that of allergens. These tiny protein particles are released when pollen impacts with filter media. Conventional air filters allow free allergens to bypass into the air flow. So, if you operate in an area where allergens pose a problem, alleviate the suffering of your employees with allergies by looking for a special filter like FreciousComfort that blocks free allergens, and inhibits the growth of mold and bacteria.

1 New study shows we work harder when we are happy, Warwich University

2 World Health Organization, WHO releases country estimates on air pollution exposure and health impact, September 2016.

3 World Bank, The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, June 2016.


5 Risk of Sick Leave Associated with Outdoor Air Supply Rate, Humidification, and Occupant Complaints, Milton DK. Glencross PM. and Walters MD. 2000

6 REHVA Guidebook: Indoor Climate and Productivity In Offices, 2006

7 Air pollution is making you worse at your job, Washington Post, November 2017

8 Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers, Harvard University, June 2016

9 Research shows if you improve the air quality at work, you improve productivity, The Conversation, May 2017