New research has uncovered the bottom-line benefits of clean air in the workplace. Safety and health professionals, HR executives, and facility managers can now make the argument that the benefits of providing a healthy indoor environment far outweigh the incremental costs.

Researchers in the past few years have begun assessing the influence that CO2 and other indoor gases have on cognitive brain function, i.e., decision-making performance.

The most recent study, entitled, "The impact of working in a green certified building on cognitive function and health," was published in Building and Environment journal's March 2017 issue by longtime collaborators from Harvard, SUNY Upstate Medical School and Syracuse University. They found that workers from a sampling of 10 buildings with the highest Green certifications (called Green+) had 26.4 percent higher cognitive function scores, better environmental perceptions and 30-percent fewer environment-related symptoms ("sick building syndrome") than those in high-performing, non-certified buildings.

In an earlier study, workers took the tests over a six-day period in simulated office space where the researchers controlled the environmental factors. On average, cognitive scores were 61 percent higher on the "Green building" day and 101 percent higher on the two "Green+ building" days than on the "conventional" building day.

In both studies, participants took a strategic management simulation test, a scenario-based assessment similar to what is used to measure the problem-solving abilities of job applicants or the strategic effectiveness of leaders.

How exactly does poor air quality affect productivity?

One of the authors, Usha Satish, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at SUNY-Upstate Medical University, says, "A lack of ventilation causes a syndrome of fatigue such as sleepiness and tiredness, which . . . would impact attention spans."

Joseph G. Allen, another researcher and lead writer for the studies, is a former "sick building" inspector who is now assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment.

"I think there's an important connection for HR to [make] the argument throughout the organization that the health benefits far outweigh the incremental costs of providing a healthy indoor environment," Allen says.

How can indoor air quality be improved? The simplest ways are to increase air ventilation through the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and to use building materials, furnishings and paints that have low-emission volatile organic compounds that contribute to poor air quality.

Pursuing LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council has the benefit of improving productivity. A council official says productivity and improved human experience are well-established drivers for LEED certification. Behavioral psychology research shows that companies adopting more rigorous environmental standards are associated with higher labor productivity -- an average of 16 percent higher -- than non-green firms. LEED-certified buildings are also demonstrating increased recruitment and retention rates and increased productivity benefits for employers.

Source: Human Resource Executive online