Protecting Your Staff from Sick Building Syndrome

Headaches, runny noses, fatigue, itching, aches and pains. If any of your staff regularly suffer from these or similar symptoms, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) may be to blame.

SBS is not in itself a recognised illness, but it describes problems that arise from spending time in buildings with environmental problems. The symptoms typically worsen the longer a person spends in the building, and improve with time away from it.

Causes can include poor ventilation, particles in the air, changes in temperature and improper use of computer monitors. We know people excel under the right conditions, but the potential problems caused by failing to properly service mechanical systems go far beyond losses in productivity or creativity. SBS can lead to absenteeism, loss of morale and higher staff turnover rates.

Taking Action

If you spot the signs of SBS in your workplace, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends beginning an investigation with obvious causes. Is there a simple explanation such as a local flu epidemic, or has the air conditioning system broken down?

If this doesn’t lead to immediate remedial action, e.g. contacting a servicing contractor, a closer look at the environment is needed. Speak to staff about symptoms and the workplace – are there problems with lighting, noise levels, temperature control or fumes?

Again, the answers should provide clues to the remedial action you can take, but it will often be necessary to seek expert advice.

Contaminated ductwork can be to blame, as dust, debris and other contaminants build up over time. Filters also need to be cleaned or changed regularly, while the general performance of the system and its components should be checked by a qualified professional.


Of course, prevention is better than cure and well-designed workplaces with carefully configured ventilation systems and thorough maintenance schedules are less likely to see the problems associated with SBS.

In its suggestions for minimising risk, the HSE discusses temperature, humidity, noise and office furnishings. And it emphasises the importance of air quality, stating:

The ventilation system should deliver air of suitable quality and in sufficient quantity to:

  • create and maintain a healthy and comfortable environment, i.e. provide fresh air;
  • dilute and remove airborne impurities and pollutants, e.g. odours, tobacco smoke, fumes and dusts;
  • create and maintain a comfortable temperature and humidity;
  • prevent stagnation and draughts.

Clearly, it’s not enough to ‘create’ an environment for success – you must also ‘maintain’ it. For that, you need regular servicing by competent and qualified engineers.

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