Editor’s note: this article was first written and published on our website in February 2020. We have now updated this to reflect current information in 2023.
Environmental concerns in the workplace are fast becoming a watchword for employers, with many raising issues over issues such as air quality, recycling and travel. Specialist industries will have additional concerns such as impact on wildlife and climate change.
As 2023 gets underway, we continue to look at ways to address these concerns; not only for the good of the world around us but also the wellbeing of employees to provide a healthier and more productive working environment.
Air Quality & Pollution
Air quality is a concern no matter where you work, but different solutions will be viable dependent on the environment of the workplace. No matter the location, air quality matters, as studies have proven that adequate ventilation results in higher cognitive function during work hours. Poor air quality can lead to lower cognitive function, allergic reactions, fatigue, throat irritation and headaches.
IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) in an office does depend on a number of factors:
- If there are open windows and doors that let irritants and lower quality air in from outside.
- Indoor heating and time of year; fan heaters, for example, will circulate irritants in the air (especially if escape routes such as doors and windows are closed).
- Closed doors and windows may not have a good seal, so still let in outdoor air.
- The environment outside of the office; those on a building site or in the middle of a busy industrial estate are more likely to have lower IAQ than those who are situated in a rural area with little passing traffic.
Improving IAQ in an office
There are a number of ways to improve IAQ in an office environment including:
- Keeping doors and windows shut during peak rush hour times to avoid excessive intake of fumes.
- Conversely, opening doors and windows to allow for good ventilation also improves air quality.
- Products that work to improve air and moisture quality are also a good idea, such as damp catchers, humidifiers and ozone generators.
- It is also worth asking workers to allow adequate ventilation in kitchen areas, so damp does not have a chance to build up – this also allows for cooking odours to dissipate.
- Introducing greenery into an office aids air quality; certain plants actually act as a filter to indoor pollution including the Peace Lily, Areca Palm, Aloe Vera and Spider Plants. They have the added bonus of looking nice and welcoming for guests and workers alike.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, ventilation has been a core requirement for many workplaces, as well as other areas such as educational establishments, medical settings and even within the home. During the pandemic, it was felt that allowing for good fresh air circulation was instrumental to keeping the rates of COVID as low as possible, and this is something that still applies today.
As such, practices such as keeping a window or door open or using an ozone generator are more popular today than ever before.
Those working in these sectors may find they are in areas with poorer air quality due to dust exposure, fumes and other by products of the materials and work they are doing. Whilst a number of laws and regulations exist around keeping workers safe, this is still an area that needs to be continually reviewed by site managers.
Part EH40/2005 (Workplace exposure limits – “WELs”) of the COSHH regulations were updated in 2020 to ensure that workers are not exposed to excess levels of hazardous substances like construction dust. The way that WELs are set have also changed in Great Britain post Brexit. More info can be found here: https://www.hse.gov.uk/coshh/basics/exposurelimits.htm
Improving AQ (Air Quality in general) in this type of environment is not always easy, but regular environmental risk assessments and surveys go a long way to keeping air pollution at a minimum, as risks can be assessed and addressed quickly.
Those who work in office environments inside this type of area can make sure doors/windows are sealed, invest in “filter” plants, humidifiers and ozone generators to further lower the risk. Those who are working “on the floor” as it were should wear face masks where required, and make sure they take regular breaks into an area with fresh air. Management should further improve air quality by keeping to the recommendations made by risk assessments and in some cases, take specific measures to control and prevent pollution. These can include:
- Fine water sprays to damp down dust
- Use of non-toxic materials – any essential toxic materials should be kept covered and monitored
- Dust screens
- No burning on site
- Wastewater collection with the view to clean and dispose correctly
Workers in other types of sectors such as retail and outdoor roles will typically be classed as lower risk (although each area should be assessed independently) so will need to ensure they keep within the law but should not worry overly about (I)AQ as a rule. Areas marked as hazardous will be treated differently (such as a fuel store on a farm).
Many people are more concerned about recycling and reuse in the workplace now than ever before, and with good reason. Recycling is now easier than ever before and yet not something always readily available in the workplace and it seems good intentions don’t go as far as taking waste home to be recycled there.. This is compounded by unnecessary paper use/printing and refusal to reuse “waste” paper, which is then sent to landfill to decompose instead of being recycled. OK so paper is easily biodegradable, but that’s not the point – it’s unnecessary waste and pollution (from printed inks etc) plus creating the need for more “virgin” paper when recycled would work just as well.
UK recycling stats for 2020 show that in England alone, commercial and industrial activities generated an estimated amount of 33.7 million tonnes of waste. This has reduced from years previous, with 37.2 MI being recorded in 2019 and 2018.
There are measures in any workplace that can be taken to improve recycling and reuse rate, although will depend on the materials being used:
- Recycling bins > split down into cardboard/paper and then plastic/glass. This would workers to not only recycle office materials but also packaging, lunch waste etc.
- Shredder > for any sensitive documents that cannot be recycled, as opposed to burning. The shredded paper can then be composted, small animal bedding or as a packaging material. Many recycling centres will not accept shredded paper as it can cause a fire hazard in the machinery and does not make good quality pulp.
- Encouraging the use of reusable items > even if they aren’t provided, employees should be encouraged to use items such as reusable straws and travel cups instead of polystyrene/plastic. Make sure any mugs for visitors are not disposable, single use items but rather “proper” mugs, or, if that’s not feasible, biodegradable / compostable.
- Composting box > workers can then add any food waste, coffee grounds etc instead of sending them to landfill or to be burned.
- Go paperless > encourage the use of digital documents wherever possible and put limits on what can be printed and why. Ask employees to reuse “scrap” paper as long as it doesn’t contain sensitive information.
This is a great article from Rubicon on getting an office or workplace to zero waste.
Many people travel for work, whether that is the basic commute or “on the road” as part of their role. There are different concerns depending on role, but one of the primary ones is pollution. There are ways to address this including:
- Car sharing > ask employees to share a vehicle on their commute in, as long as they all work in the same building/aren’t going greatly out their way. Some companies offer bonus schemes or awards for people who make an effort to reduce the amount of vehicles being used to come to work.
- Encourage alternative transport methods > many people are now choosing to take public transport if they can or walk/bike to work if within distance to reduce the amount of driving required. This not only saves money but reduces the amount of pollution in the air too.
- Hybrid or electric vehicles – not feasible for everyone, but becoming more popular, hybrid or electric vehicles are the way forward for cutting down on air pollution from fuel fumes. They are also cheaper to run and many workplaces offer a charging station now for convenience.
It is also possible now to buy hybrid or electric vans in a range of sizes, to encourage heavy travellers such as courier companies to reduce pollution.
Whichever workplace you’re in, there are always going to be concerns over health and the environment. Taking even simple steps to improve air quality, reduce waste and encourage greener practices are a good start, as many say they feel encouraged to continue or start these in their home lives if they are being supported in the workplace as well.
Here’s to an even healthier 2023 and beyond!