Is Your Workplace Air Making Employees Sick?

By Barbara M. Kaplan May 31, 2013

Whether you spend the majority of your workday behind a desk or in an industrial setting, there could be dozens of serious health dangers lurking in the air you breathe. Indoor air quality can be a serious occupational health hazard that is too often overlooked because some pollutants are less likely to be recognized as threats than others.

Examples include your colleague who always wears strong perfume, the potted plant in the corner of your office and the clutter on top of your boss’s file cabinet—these are all seemingly harmless things that could sicken a co-worker with asthma.

Dust that accumulates around cluttered areas, strong odors (regardless of the source) and mold commonly found in the soil of potted plants can all trigger severe asthma attacks. Even newer buildings can lead to trouble for people with asthma if heavily insulated doors and windows were installed as energy-saving features. New insulation technologies have made modern buildings nearly airtight. This lack of airflow can result in polluted indoor air with unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide and water vapor, both of which make for an attractive breeding environment for dust mites. The presence of nuisance pests, including dust mites, mice and cockroaches, can exacerbate asthma symptoms and cause severe attacks.

Roughly one in 12 adults in the U.S.—close to 19 million people—currently suffers from asthma. So chances are, there is at least one asthmatic person in your workplace who could benefit from basic asthma-reducing workplace policies.

Helping Your Workforce Breathe Easily

Making indoor air a priority can increase employee productivity significantly. Nationally, asthma is responsible for 14 million missed workdays. Individuals with active asthma—defined as those who regularly experience common symptoms such as wheezing or coughing—miss, on average, 2.6 more workdays per year than their peers.

Asthma is also a leading reason for hospitalizations and trips to the emergency room, adding to the potential for increased health care costs for your company. Considering the average cost of a hospital stay for an asthmatic adult is $5,600, ensuring that your workplace prioritizes lung health for all makes good financial sense.

Does this mean companies need to invest in new windows and ban all clutter and decorative plants?

Not exactly. The good news is that there is much that can be done for little cost and effort to significantly improve the lung health of your entire workforce. For example:

*Promote a smoke-free work environment, and help smokers quit. There are still a significant number of American workers who are exposed to secondhand smoke during their typical workday. There is no safe level of secondhand smoke, which can cause asthma attacks, strokes, heart attacks and even premature death.

*Establish fragrance-free policies. It’s been said that one woman’s perfume is another’s poison. This is particularly the case for people with asthma. Fragrance-free policies level the playing field, reducing unsavory odors for all, and are fast becoming standard practice in a variety of work environments.

*Offer stress-management activities and programs. Stress is an asthma trigger. While achieving a stress-free work environment may be too lofty a goal, you can provide your employees with the tools to better manage and cope with trying times.

*Offer flu shots. Prevention is the best medicine, especially when it comes to battling influenza, which can be especially devastating to people with lung disease. The easier that companies make it for employees to get their annual flu shot, the more likely they are to get vaccinated and not miss work during flu season.

*Host asthma-education workshops for staff. Would you or your employees know what to do if a customer or co-worker had an asthma attack? Invite a local American Lung Association representative to your office to train employees on how to spot and handle such an emergency.

*Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. Keeping pests at bay will help everyone at your workplace breathe more easily. The IPM approach is environmentally sensitive and minimizes people’s exposure to dangerous pesticides that can cause both short-term and long-term health problems.

*Establish an asthma-awareness program. Many still think of asthma as a childhood affliction. Adults are more likely to ignore symptoms or to blame them on something other than this condition. Raising employees’ awareness about asthma can keep your workforce healthy and prevent serious respiratory emergencies in the workplace.

*Provide your workers with access to comprehensive health coverage. Affordable health care and prescription medications to control and manage asthma symptoms are critical to helping asthmatics stay productive and avoid unnecessary hospitalizations.

*Provide physical activity and nutrition programs. Those with asthma can and should enjoy active lives. Staying fit and following a healthy diet are key ingredients of a holistic wellness program that will help keep all employees feeling their best.

*Review the American Lung Association’s Guide to Creating Lung-Friendly Workplacesonline, which features tested policy recommendations, implementation strategies and useful information that can support companies’ efforts to help their employees breathe more easily.

Human resource managers are the first line of defense when it comes to protecting workers with lung disease and should consider the American Lung Association their partner in lung disease prevention. There is no cure for asthma, but it is possible to significantly reduce triggers in the workplace that can exacerbate symptoms or cause asthma attacks.

Barbara M. Kaplan, M.P.H., CHES, is the asthma education director for the American Lung Association. ​


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job

HR Professional Development Education in a City Near You

SHRM Seminars are coming to cities across the US this fall.

Find a Seminar


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect