Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Better air can boost productivity

By Edward D. Murphy Portland Press Herald Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Businesses can provide workers with the latest technology, ergonomic equipment and eye-friendly lighting, but they may be missing out on a key ingredient of a healthy workplace -- air.

New studies suggest that healthy air quality, as measured by the proper air temperature and the correct amount of ventilation, is an important determining factor in productivity. The concept will be one of the topics explored next week at a conference in Augusta sponsored by the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council, the American Lung Association of Maine and Efficiency Maine.

Richard Shaughnessy, who will be the keynote speaker at the conference and is director of indoor air quality research at the University of Tulsa (Okla.), said people know intuitively that healthy indoor air is important, but the latest research that shows a direct, quantifiable link between poor indoor air and worker productivity provides an opportunity to compare the cost of improvements to the benefits of increased output.

"In an office setting, we're talking about productivity, and (with poor air quality) you've got people being out sick, and it impacts the ability of people to perform properly on a daily basis," said Shaughnessy, whose research also has found a correlation between the quality of the indoor air in schools and student test results.

Shaughnessy said air quality has been a factor in the design of buildings for more than a century, but the technology to maintain a balanced temperature, the introduction of fresh air and filtering out contaminants has gotten better over the years. However, older buildings haven't necessarily been upgraded to reflect those advances, he said.

Christine Crocker, executive director of the air quality council, said Maine may face more challenges with maintaining healthy indoor air than many other states because of the need to balance proper ventilation and temperature control with energy efficiency.

"You can have a green, efficient, healthy building," she said. "Any building always has the risk of an indoor air problem. It's how you operate and maintain a building that determines whether it becomes a (health) risk."

Many building owners upgraded insulation and buttoned up buildings in the 1970s, when energy prices went through their first significant upward spiral, Crocker said. Subsequent research, however, has shown that super-insulated buildings can become unhealthy because of a lack of fresh air being brought in and related problems, such as mold growth and trapping pollutants inside.

A big part of the council's mission is making sure that the same mistakes aren't repeated, she said.

"Our message always is that education is a pretty big key -- as we're working with new products and processes, we need to be mindful of the consequences," Crocker said.

Shaughnessy and Crocker said businesses need to recognize that ignoring those consequences carries a cost.

The latest research strongly suggests that lower productivity ends up costing businesses more than investing in equipment and making changes that improve indoor air quality, Shaughnessy said.

"The ability to concentrate -- the inability to even show up on a given day -- all of these things add up," he said.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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