Who's Complaining About Indoor Air Quality?

May 20, 2000
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The quality of indoor air has been a hot topic in the safety and health field for years. Back in 1989, a report estimated between 800,000 and 1.2 million commercial buildings in the U.S. have problems that could be classified as sick building syndrome, potentially affecting 30 to 70 million occupants. Throughout the 1980s, NIOSH investigated hundreds of indoor air complaints. In 1991, OSHA formally began to consider a possible standard (prompted in part by pressure for a workplace smoking ban), and in 1994 it proposed a rule.

OSHA chief Joe Dear called the proposal one of the most extensive rules ever issued by the agency. Its environmental tobacco smoke provisions covered more than six million workplaces, and indoor air requirements applied to 4.5 million non-industrial worksites, including offices, training centers, commercial facilities, cafeterias, and factory break rooms.

The ensuing controversy is well-known to safety and health pros, with most of the debate centering around the smoking regulations. After five months of hearings, OSHA is still sifting through comments, opinions, and position papers. Officials have been non-committal about where the agency goes from here.

Lost in the media fanfare and political rhetoric has been the view of safety and health professionals. And for years it's been skeptical. In 1988, 55 percent of industrial hygienists surveyed by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News said sick building syndrome was not a widespread industry health hazard. In 1993, only 36 percent of environmental health and safety pros said Congress should pass a law regulating indoor air quality.

Most recently, only 13 percent of professionals say IAQ will be an issue of great importance to their organization next year, according to research for the 1996 White Paper Outlook.

What's behind this apparent apathy?

Several factors are involved, according to interviews conducted for this article. And they reflect long-standing trends among professionals.

One is the responsiveness to OSHA activity. When OSHA acts, the field reacts. The agency's interest in IAQ gained momentum throughout the 1990s, peaking with the proposal and controversy that followed. With an unfriendly political climate stalling standards-setting, safety and health pros look to put their limited resources elsewhere.

Interest in IAQ was stronger when the Democratic Congress held legislative power and OSHA's standard was more of a threat, explains John Meagher, manager of technical support for the American Industrial Hygiene Association. (Two years ago, 60 percent of pros surveyed for the White Paper said they were interested in IAQ.) But issues that aren't going to be regulated slip on the priority list, he says.

This is evident with ergonomics as well as IAQ. As OSHA's standards-setting gained attention, White Paper research shows professionals beefed up their ergo budgets (48 percent planned to increase ergo spending in 1995, up from 27 percent in 1994). But with the regulation on hold, only 23 percent plan to increase ergo spending in 1996.

Many safety and health pros are just too busy to put energy into issues that won't be regulated, according to several sources. "They have a lot of fires to put out, a lot of things to handle," says Meagher.

Dan Markiewicz, senior industrial hygienist with Trinova Corp., agrees. With limited resources, he says professionals must take care of hot button regulatory issues first because that's what top management expects. Indeed, 71 percent of professionals say regulatory compliance will be a prime driver behind their efforts in 1996, according to White Paper research.

Liability concerns also get the attention of business execs and EHS pros, but so far IAQ-related lawsuits are scarce, says Mark Diamond, a New York-based attorney. Diamond expects media publicity to lead to more court cases, and he says that will revive the IAQ issue with professionals.

The public is more susceptible to media hype than professionals, and this is another reason for the lack of urgency regarding IAQ. Pros have seen many issues come and go on hype, says Markiewicz. Media and social pressures are probably responsible for more employee complaints than actual bad air, adds Roger Dohn of KSA Consulting.

"The media act as propagators in these issues," says Mark Katchen, national practice leader for the consulting firm Environ. "They present aggrandizement at best, distortion at worst."

In a similar vein, another widely-reported issue-workplace violence-also scores low on professionals' list of priorities for '96. Only 10 percent of the pros polled say they will put a lot of emphasis on dealing with workplace violence.

Violence and indoor air complaints share another similarity: both most often happen away from industrial workplaces. Lance Percival, safety manager for R. U. Wright Environmental consultants, says he keeps busy with IAQ issues, but not with industrial clients. Professionals' interest in IAQ depends on where they work, says Percival.

His point is borne out in White Paper research. The least amount of interest in IAQ comes from pros in construction and utilities, where much of the work is done outdoors.

But it doesn't explain why IAQ is a low-priority issue with professionals in the government sector, where there are a number of office buildings. These pros are particularly strapped for resources, and just might not have the time and staff to conduct investigations. Plus, many government buildings were erected before energy-efficient "tight" designs became fashionable in the 1970s.

There's one more possible explanation for the apathy many pros apparently feel about IAQ, In fact, it might not be apathy as much as indecision. IAQ problems are often hard to track down and resolve, and there's a need for some definite guidance, says former NIOSH director J. Donald Millar, now a private consultant in Atlanta. "The real crux of this issue is to separate the wheat from the chaff and find out what are the serious issues," he says. There needs to be some leadership and direction to follow. Otherwise, pros are often left in a quandary with nothing specific to recommend except turn up the ventilation or air conditioner, he explains.

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