Health Hazards Of Working In A ‘Sick’ Building

KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – Do you find yourself sneezing endlessly and experiencing eye irritation, headache and malaise when you enter a certain building and notice the symptoms disappearing after you leave the place?

You are not alone as many others are also known to experience acute health effects when they are present in a particular building for some time and which typically alleviate after they leave the building.

Since these symptoms have no identifiable cause or diagnosis, they are generally termed as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).

SBS is recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “a syndrome of complaints covering nonspecific feelings of malaise, the onset of which is associated with occupancy of certain buildings”.

Studies published on show that poor indoor air quality is among the chief contributors to SBS.

Commenting on the poor air quality inside buildings where office employees spend eight to nine hours a day at work, Columbia Asia Hospital chief medical officer and occupational health doctor Dr Mohd Fadhli Mohd Yusof said individuals who spend a lot of time inside a building are more likely to be exposed to SBS due to the presence of particular matter that can cause irritation and discomfort.


He said pollutants such as ozone, nitrous dioxide and carbon monoxide present outside and inside a building are essentially the same but in the case of the latter, the amount and concentration of the particulates can be higher.

Indoor air pollutants remain stagnant in buildings equipped with a poor ventilation system. Ventilation systems and air conditioners that are poorly maintained, as well as high humidity levels due to leakages, can allow mould, bacteria, fungus and dust mites to thrive.

“Unhealthy indoor air due to the presence of fungus, bacteria and chemical substances lead to SBS. Usually, old buildings that are not maintained properly are susceptible to this syndrome,” he told Bernama.

Dr Mohd Fadhli said long-term exposure to polluted air can have an impact on the respiratory system, especially in the case of individuals who have chronic lung ailments such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can also increase the risk of suffering a stroke, heart disease and certain types of cancer.

The heightened risk, he explained, is caused by fine particulate matter of less than 2.5 micrometres that can remain airborne for a long time.

When inhaled, these pollutants do not only affect the lungs but can also be absorbed into the bloodstream.

The situation can be more worrying for those who work long hours inside aged buildings where decomposition of chemical compounds has set it, particularly on its ceilings, walls and paintwork.

“It is even worse when the old building has furniture made of pressed wood,” added Dr Mohd Fadhli.

Among other pollutants that can get trapped indoors are tobacco smoke, volatile organic compounds released by the use of solvents and ozone produced by photocopy machines and laser printers.


Pointing to the centralised air conditioning systems commonly installed in large establishments as a cost-saving measure, Dr Mohd Fadhli said these posed a higher health risk than individual split units.

“If the centralised system is not maintained regularly, its filter will get saturated which will enable pollutants to flow into the general ventilation system and thus, pollute the entire building,” he explained.

And, when this happens, employees will start to complain about feeling unwell and take sick leave, which will cause productivity levels to drop.

He said diseases caused by poor indoor air quality are underdiagnosed because their symptoms overlap with that of other illnesses. Not only that, there is also an absence of a clear trend in terms of hospital admissions where SBS-related malaise is concerned.

“Nevertheless, the most significant health issues associated with poor indoor air quality are allergies, breathing problem, eye irritation, sinusitis, bronchitis and lung infections,” he said, adding that continuous exposure to polluted air can cause asthma attacks and severe COPD that can lead to more frequent hospital admissions.

He also urged building managements to carry out air quality evaluations once every five years to ensure a cleaner and healthier working environment.

The Industry Code of Practice on Indoor Air Quality, introduced by the Department of Occupational Safety and Health in 2010, clearly outlines guidelines and standards to protect the health of workers and other occupants of an indoor or enclosed environment served by mechanical ventilation and/or air conditioning.

According to its code, the acceptable parameters for indoor air temperature is 23 to 26 degrees Celsius, relative humidity 40-70 percent and air movement 0.15 to 0.50 metre per second.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act 1994 also stipulates the general duties of employers and self-employed persons to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees at the workplace. These include formulating health and safety policies.

Employers who fail to perform their responsibilities are liable to a fine not exceeding RM50,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both if found guilty.


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