Eco Office Supplies Articles

The business case for green buildings: workplace productivity & health

Fostering a positive workplace environment makes good business sense. After all, your staff’s values, attitudes and behaviours can strongly influence business outcomes. As we increasingly understand the positive impact of eliminating toxins from the workplace environment, we will benefit from less absenteeism and employee turnover, better safety practices and improved staff wellbeing.

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Inside Small Business | Sustainability | Autumn 2015 Issue

Indoor air quality

We tend to think of air pollution as something outside – smog, ozone or haze hanging in the air. But the air inside our homes, offices, and other buildings can be more polluted.

The CSIRO estimates that the cost of poor indoor air quality in Australia may be as high as $12 billion per year. Recent comparative risk studies performed by the US Science Advisory Board have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health. Our built environment is currently the world’s single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, consumes around a third of our water and generates 40% of our waste.

Sick building syndrome

The term ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS) describes an excess of chronic symptoms and persistent illness in office workers when fumes are inhaled from a range of products such as paints, photocopiers, carpets, office furnishings, glues, toxins, chemicals and plastics. Known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), these fumes are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids and are a major pollutant for indoor environments. VOCs include a variety of highly toxic chemicals, some of which may have shortand long-term adverse health effects including headaches and irritation of the eye, nose and throat. Others can affect coordination, cause nausea, and damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, and may even be a cause of cancer.

New fit-out or refurbishment

Building materials, furnishings and finishes are some of the largest contributors to indoor air pollution. In earlier days, furniture was made from timber and fabrics were made from natural fibres. These days flat-packed furniture, commercial carpentry and carpet glues contain formaldehyde. Synthetic fabrics are petroleum-based and treated with flameretardant chemicals. Synthetic chemical compounds used in glues, resins, stain treatments, dyes and many building materials may ‘off-gas’ into the indoor air in the first eight weeks and continue to a lesser degree for years. New carpeting VOCs may include toluene, benzene, formaldehyde, ethyl benzene, styrene, acetone and a host of other chemicals and carcinogens – some of which the Environmental Protection Agency has determined to be extremely hazardous substances. If you’ve ever felt queasy or lightheaded in a room recently floored with new carpeting, this is most likely why.

TIP Research and choose materials wisely, and try to avoid VOCs found in many new paints, rubber underlays, carpet, floorboard treatments, cabinetry, foam cushions and furnishings.

Bring nature indoors

Indoor plants can contribute to a healthy and positive work environment by reducing airborne concentrations of volatile organic compounds. NASA research shows that indoor plants act as living air purifiers – the foliage and roots work in tandem to absorb chemical pollutants released by synthetic materials. Plants have even been known to increase worker productivity. One US study found that productivity increased 12% when people performed tasks in a room with plants.

TIP From as little as $5 per week you can engage an indoor plant hire company such as Green Design.

Clean green

Green cleaning products can minimise health risks to building maintenance workers, improve indoor air quality and reduce water pollution. By switching to green alternatives, you can reduce the levels of VOCs in your office environment. And by choosing reusable packaging, you’ll also save on waste to landfill. Some excellent Australian-made cleaning products on the market are Clean Conscience or Enviroclean. Or search the Good Environmental Choice Australia website for sustainable and certified products.

TIP Check the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for toxins and chemical nasties.

Breathe easy

Automatic aerosol ‘air fresheners’ are commonly used in bathrooms within commercial office and public buildings – often small, enclosed spaces without windows or even ventilation. It is preposterous to imagine that a chemically-scented fragrance and/or aerosols propelled by butane, propane or other toxins can create an indoor environment of fresh air. Yet we still tend to associate a lemon or pine scent with thoughts of clean or fresh. At best chemical ‘deodorisers’ or chemical air ‘fresheners’ can only mask other odours. These products do nothing to improve indoor air quality, and in fact can contribute to ailments like headaches, high pulse rate and nausea. Most synthetic fragrances in air fresheners and cleaning chemicals are derived from petroleum products and can emit dozens of different chemicals into the air. Aerosol sprays used to contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) until they were banned because of the effects on the ozone layer. CFCs had been replaced with volatile hydrocarbons, which are all flammable petrochemicals.

TIP One simple thing you can do to improve indoor air quality is to stop using aerosol sprays both at home and at work – deodorants, hair sprays, carpet cleaners, furniture polish, fly sprays and air fresheners. Pump packs are generally a healthier option.

Just as important as OH&S

Australian workplaces adopt riskmanagement policies and implement OH&S procedures on a daily basis. Maybe it’s time to start planning for the silent, invisible environmental risk factors that may be adversely affecting our health at work.

More information: Green Building Council of Australia or Fresh Green Clean.

Heather Lesley

Eco Office Supplies


Published in the Autumn 2015 issue of Inside Small Business

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