February 23, 2024

Improve Your Indoor Air Quality: Insights and Actions for Employers

Stephen Massey
Director, Health Action Alliance

Cleaner air in the workplace prevents illness and has been shown to improve productivity.

Healthy buildings mean healthy business. Cleaner indoor air improves performance and reduces absenteeism by as much as 35%. It also protects against the spread of airborne viruses like COVID-19 and flu, as well as allergens that cause asthma and other respiratory infections.  

To help companies understand how to implement air quality improvements, we hosted a 45-minute discussion with Georgia Lagoudas, Senior White House Advisor for Biotechnology and Bioeconomy; Joseph Allen, Director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings Program and David Michaels, Senior Health Action Alliance Advisor and Former Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. They explained:

  • Why air quality upgrades are more effective than surface sanitization;
  • The estimated cost—and return on investment—for improved ventilation;
  • How to know whether air quality upgrades are working; and
  • What businesses who lease space should ask their building owner

Here are 10 takeaways from the discussion (click the links to hear more from our speakers).

  1. Indoor air quality is crucial to employee health for the key reason that COVID-19 and other infectious diseases are primarily spread through the air. There are three ways to provide cleaner air:
  • Ventilation - “Exchanging” the air in a given room or workplace 4-6 times per hour by bringing in outside air (ventilation) dilutes the amount of virus indoors and keeps it from accumulating
  • Filtration - Removing virus particles as they pass through the air, with the use of HEPA or MERV-13 filters
  • Disinfection - Killing airborne virus particles through ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) systems which are appropriate in limited settings.

  1. “Surfaces aren’t a substantial contributor to new infections. So surface sanitization and hand-washing are less effective than tools like ventilation because COVID is transmitted through the air,” says Georgia Lagoudas from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. “Improving air quality has the potential to be more effective, less intrusive because it doesn’t require individual action [from employees], and even more cost-efficient.”

  1. By investing $40 per person per year to double your ventilation rate, employers can recoup $6,000-$7,000 per person per year in higher productivity, apart from the protection from infectious disease, according to Joseph Allen, who authored the book Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. The productivity gains are the reverse effect of why you may feel slow and tired after spending time in a stuffy conference room.

  1. On absenteeism alone, in a study with over 4,000 employees across roughly 40 buildings, having about twice as much clean air moving into rooms reduced sick leave by 35%. 

  1. All workplaces can benefit from increased outdoor air, by opening windows and doors, as well as dampers on HVAC units. Upgraded filtration is also recommended in all circumstances. UVGI, however, is best limited to high-risk locations due to its cost and potential exposure risks. It is not recommended for every office. (Read more about UVGI from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

  1. If your business leases space, what should you say to your building owner? Joseph Allen says that merely asking what the building’s standards are, how air quality is monitored, and how the building owner will enhance ventilation and filtration will tell you a lot. To building owners, Allen says tenants are getting more sophisticated about asking the right questions—and buildings with cleaner air are commanding higher rents.

  1. Carbon dioxide levels are a good proxy for grading your ventilation—and you can measure them with real-time, portable, low-cost sensors. 600 parts per million is an ideal target. 800 parts per million is acceptable. 1000 or higher is a sign of ventilation that can be improved. 

  1. Humidity matters, too. The virus survives better in low humidity. Indoor relative humidity of 40-60% should be your target.

  1. While most upgrades are available at modest costs, there is federal funding available. The American Rescue Plan made $350 billion available to state, local, and tribal governments, which local government can provide to the business community. A new round of funding is due in May. And, the new Clean Air in Buildings Challenge from the federal Environmental Protection Agency provides resources and guiding principles for the steps building owners can take.

  1. Don’t forget to measure and communicate the upgrades you’ve made to your employees and retail customers. It will let them know you’re taking additional steps to create a healthy environment and help you to get out in front of any individuals’ measurements of air quality (and social media shaming).