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A Guide to Environmental Issues in the Workplace

Updated Feb 28, 2023

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Sean Peek
Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership at business.com
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A safe, healthy workplace environment is important for the physical safety, mental well-being and productivity of modern-day employees. 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 workers. Not only can poorly managed work settings reduce productivity, but research has shown they may be linked to causing asthma, lung cancer and other medical problems.

Employers need to ensure the health and welfare of their workers. Proactivity can ensure health management savings, low absenteeism and contained insurance premiums. To make sure your business is complying with the law, you should consult the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines and follow directives. If necessary, contact an environmental consultant to determine cost-effective ways to handle workplace environment issues. 

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 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 especially at high risk of poor health conditions due to air quality and ventilation issues.

FYIDid you know

In the event that workers have to care for their health and well-being after poor environmental exposure from the office, employers should be aware of federal laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables employees to go on leave.

2. Asbestos

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 (although it is still legal in the U.S.). 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.

>> Learn More: Want to Boost Productivity? Start by Cleaning Your Office

3. Mold

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 skin irritation. While the severity of these symptoms varies, respiratory complications are more common and severe in individuals with asthma.

4. Noise

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 affect productivity quickly.

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.

5. Ergonomics

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. Not only that, but if enough employees go on leave for physical injuries, your business may have to pay for their compensation and for the hiring and equipping of new workers to fill empty office spaces. You might also have to offer overtime pay to workers who are filling in the gaps during absenteeism. 

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.

TipBottom line

To create a more productive work culture, invest in quality office lighting to decrease fatigue, better office furniture for comfort and fitness classes to energize your employees and get them to move their bodies.

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 company-wide 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. For example, build a training program specifically on electrical dangers in the workplace and teach employees safety techniques they can use to avoid injury.  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.

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’ productivity and health.

Did You Know?Did you know

Healthcare companies taking care of individuals who have been exposed to environmental upsets should adopt electronic health records (EHRs) to best assess patient diagnosis and treatment and to provide a digital patient portal for posted medical conditions and prescribed medicines.

4. Evaluate the effectiveness of environmental precautions over time.

In addition to educating your employees about workplace dangers and possible illnesses, apply what you’ve learned over time. Make sure the methods you’ve put in place are affecting your workplace environment positively by removing hazards and protecting your employees. 

Track and monitor the effectiveness of your precautions and any incidents that correspond to environmental issues, such as trips from fallen cords laying on the floor or open drawers; ergonomic injuries from furniture, such as office chairs that don’t adjust; or mental health crises from high work expectations. After assessing the workplace environment along with its policies and procedures, determine if the precautions are effective by polling your employees.

If you find that there has been a plethora of workplace accidents over a certain period of time, take action. While training employees to be safe is good practice, there are also times when the company may be responsible for workplace accidents. This is why environmental precautions must be implemented and monitored for effectiveness. 

For example, if there is a leak in the bathroom that your workers use, hire a service to fix it. In the meantime, ask a cleaning staff member to mop the floor and leave a hazard warning sign for people to see. If the floor doesn’t get mopped one day or the hazard sign gets placed in the wrong area and someone falls and breaks a hip, your company will be held accountable for unsafe working conditions. 

5. Create emergency and natural disaster plans.

The OSHA requires businesses to create a course of action for the unthinkable, such as a fire in the building, a mass shooter or an oncoming earthquake. As a part of that plan, employers should ensure their workers participate in practice drills and receive their own copies of emergency protocols for when a disaster occurs.

In addition, prepare emergency survival bags with basic necessities, such as a gallon of water, a first aid kit, flashlights, radios, batteries, blankets, maps and nonperishables. Employees should also be aware of their company’s evacuation procedures. 

Sharon Cullars contributed to this article.

Sean Peek
Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership at business.com
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.
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