Employees spend almost a quarter of their lives at work, which means workplace environments are a very important part of most people's lives. Working in a safe, healthy environment is important for your physical safety, mental well-being and work productivity.
Bad air quality and ventilation, as well as asbestos-riddled structures, can lead to sick building syndrome, which can compromise the health and comfort of your employees. Not only can poor workplace environments reduce productivity, but research has shown they may be linked to asthma, lung cancer and other medical problems.
Employers need to take affirmative steps to ensure the health and welfare of their workers. Confronting the problem makes business sense by way of health management savings as well as low absenteeism and contained insurance premiums. To make sure your business is complying with the law, you should consult EPA and OSHA guidelines and follow directives. If necessary, contact an environmental consultant to determine cost-effective ways to handle workplace environment issues.
Here are three things you can do to combat environmental health issues in the workplace:
- Educate yourself on environmental issues in business to ensure compliance.
- Consult environmental experts to handle health issues in the workplace.
- Train your employees on environmental issues in business.
How to combat environmental health issues in the workplace
1. Educate yourself on environmental issues in business to ensure compliance.
You can find online EPA resources outlining issues such as air quality assurance, onsite wastewater management (PDFs) and onsite remediation. You should also read OSHA's handbook for small businesses. These online resources give you a good start in compliance with standards for environmental issues at work. You can find online EPA guidelines for several specific industries as well.
2. Consult environmental experts to handle health issues in the workplace.
At some point, you may decide you need to consult with an expert on environmental issues in the workplace. Check online and local resources to find a consultant who can do site inspections. Determine what services you need and what experience you want in an environmental consultant.
Yale has compiled a broad list of national environmental consulting firms. One choice, EBI Consulting, is a nationwide environmental management service that conducts onsite investigations and determines workplace compliance.
3. Train your employees on environmental issues in business.
While training your employees on business environmental issues is vital to complete workplace compliance and helps them assess potential health issues, it can be difficult to know where to start. Before making companywide policies or training employees, make sure you understand the environmental laws and regulations that may impact your industry. You should also research state and local policies that apply to your business.
Once you have a solid understanding of environmental laws for business, you can train your employees on proper procedures and policies. If an employee is passionate about environmental issues, consider designating them as an environmental officer within your company to help educate and train other people, including new hires.
Common types of environmental issues in the workplace
If you want to combat environmental issues in your workplace, the first step is educating yourself on the ones you're likely to encounter.
1. Poor air quality and ventilation
Poor air quality is most common in manufacturing or work sites that release pollutants but can also be found in standard office buildings. Air quality issues, including excessively high or low humidity, can lead to eye irritation as well as sinus and respiratory issues.
These issues are compounded in workplaces with poor ventilation, which can circulate viruses, allergens, or even gases and residue from cleaning supplies. Extended exposure to poor air quality increases the risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and other long-term infections. Employees with asthma or compromised immune systems are at especially high risk of health issues due to air quality and ventilation issues.
Asbestos is an effective insulator that is often used to strengthen or fireproof materials. However, asbestos exposure can lead to major health issues, so it has been banned in several countries (though it is still legal in the United States). It's especially dangerous because some of the asbestos fibers can remain stuck in the body for decades.
Breathing in asbestos can lead to inflammation and respiratory or lung disease, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Employees who smoke or have asthma are at higher risk from asbestos exposure.
Mold can form wherever moisture lives and reproduce through small spores, making it a common workplace environmental issue. It grows from excess humidity, condensation, leaking pipes, drips or flooding, all of which are easy to miss if you're not looking for them.
Unchecked mold can not only lead to long-term building damage but also impact your employees' health. Exposure to damp and moldy environments can cause eye and throat irritation, nasal congestion, coughing or wheezing, and even skin irritation. While the severity of these symptoms varies, respiratory complications are more common and severe in individuals with asthma.
Noise may not be the first environmental issue that comes to mind – after all, ambient noise is present in nearly every workplace. However, consistently excessive noise levels can increase stress and decrease quality of work. Employees may find it hard to concentrate on tasks or understand their co-workers, which can quickly affect productivity.
Noise pollution also carries short- and long-term health risks for employees. Not only can excess noise cause headaches or migraines, but repeated exposure can lead to hearing loss and even heart disease.
The study of ergonomics covers the working conditions that factor into employees' productivity and well-being. Poor workplace ergonomics can cause fatigue and health issues, reducing productivity and work quality.
Two common issues that negatively impact employee health are poor lighting and uncomfortable desk chairs. Insufficient or excessively bright lighting can not only cause eye strain but also impact decision-making when it comes to visually assessing a product's quality. Uncomfortable chairs can lead to poor posture and a variety of muscular, joint and bone disorders – potentially increasing your company's healthcare costs and employee absenteeism.
By understanding the environmental issues that are most likely to affect your workplace, you will be better equipped to identify and combat them. If you take steps toward a greener workplace, it will improve your employees' health and productivity in both the short term and long term.
Sharon Cullars contributed to the reporting and writing in this article.