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HR Magazine - October 2000: A Dearth of Guidance

By Robert J. Grossman  10/1/2000
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HR Magazine, October 2000

Vol. 45, No. 10

HUMAN RESOURCE professionals seeking objective, conclusive guidance when dealing with indoor air quality (IAQ) should prepare themselves for disappointment. At this time, little—if any—official documentation is available to help employers determine how healthy their buildings are or what they can do to improve them.

That’s not to say that such guidance hasn’t been in the works for some time. In fact, in 1994, after studying the dismal statistics and available research on IAQ, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a proposed standard that would have applied to 70 million workers and more than 4.5 million non-industrial indoor work environments.

The standard sought to require employers to write and implement indoor air quality compliance plans covering such elements as inspection and maintenance of building ventilation systems. Other provisions focused on requiring employers to maintain healthy air quality during renovation, remodeling and similar activities.

At the time, OSHA estimated that implementing the standard would result in a significant benefit to employers and a substantial reduction in air-quality related illnesses each year.

The agency closed public discussion on the issue in January 1996. Since then, it has let the standard languish, setting no target date for future action. Conceding there’s no evidence that the disturbing IAQ data amassed by the agency has improved, spokesperson Susan Fleming says OSHA’s priority for the foreseeable future has shifted to ergonomics.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), under its Health Hazard Evaluation Program, is spending more than half its time investigating indoor air quality. It has reported IAQ problems caused by ventilation system deficiencies, overcrowding, gas emissions from materials, tobacco smoke, microbiological contamination and outside air pollutants. NIOSH also has found comfort problems due to improper temperature and relative humidity conditions.

Congress, however, apparently remains unconcerned; it allocated just $15 million of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) $7.5 billion budget for indoor air. With its meager funding, EPA is chugging along with a study that will provide IAQ benchmarks from 100 buildings it has studied for all kinds of pollutants.

Because there are no government standards and regulations for white-collar workplaces, the results should provide some guidance for HR in determining the relative health of their buildings. But money is scarce, says Steve Page, director of EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. Don’t expect the results for two or three years.

With the federal government on the sidelines, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has taken the lead in setting standards for fresh air in buildings. ASHRAE’s standards have indirectly become law as many state and local governments have incorporated them into building codes.

Prior to the 1970s—and the move to more energy-efficient buildings—ASHRAE Standard 62 recommended an airflow of 30 cubic feet of air per person per minute. In the 1970s, the standard was lowered to 5 cubic feet. Now it’s back up to 20 cubic feet and even that rate is under review as evidence mounts that more fresh air is preferable.

But don’t hold your breath for the new results. The decision to revise the standard is not without controversy, and the process is limping along. Andrew Persily, group leader at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., and chairman of the committee charged with revising the standard, estimates it will take two years before a comprehensive revision will be completed.

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