Identifying Sick Building Syndrome
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
On Wednesdays, we focus on the workplace. Today, offices that workers say make them sick, and houses that are healthy for the environment. We begin with a British study in the current issue of the journal, Occupational and Environmental Medicine. It sets out to find why some workers have symptoms have fatigue and coughing after being in the office.
After looking at employees in 44 buildings in London, the authors concluded that it's not always the workplace that makes people sick; it can be the work, and the stress that comes with it. When managers suspect a building may be sick, they might call Howard Brightman, in Boston. He's an industrial hygienist, what you might call a building doctor. A lot of people talk about Sick Building syndrome. It has a certain water cooler quality to it. But what exactly is Sick Building syndrome?
HOWARD BRIGHTMAN: Basically it's when people experience more symptoms related to eyes, head, respiratory system, skin, at work than at home.
BRIGHTMAN: Well, we recently did an investigation of 100 randomly selected buildings across the U.S. as part of a U.S. EPA study, and in every building there were work-related symptoms. Forty-five percent of the workforce attributed at least one health symptom to their workplace, and 20 percent linked three symptoms to their workplace.
MONTAGNE: Now, the researchers who were talking to 4,000 civil servants in London about their environment found that there were some problems with the building, but also that a number of these problems were brought on by people who had problems with their jobs. Effectively, Sick Job syndrome, if you will.
Have you come across that sort of thing in your investigation of buildings?
BRIGHTMAN: Sure. In one situation we had a large number of very unhappy employees with many symptoms being reported, and they were complaining of upper respiratory symptoms, wheezing, and nausea. And we found wet insulation that gave off a vomit smell, and we thought for sure that this was the cause of many of the symptoms. But once the source was removed, and ventilation improved, the employees were still unhappy. They continued to complain about their symptoms.
So what we started to tease out of that was that there was much more going on than just the building dynamics. There was definitely an experience at work that was psychosocial.
MONTAGNE: When you go into a building and you're asked to identify what's wrong with the building, and you cannot find anything, what do you say to management?
BRIGHTMAN: Well, in reality, I think that we have a whole battery of investigation tools that we go in and we'll look at different aspects of the physical environment. We can talk about crowdedness and open space, how people get access to their windows, and then, within the organization, they have to look to see what other aspects might help the workers alleviate stress, such as the amount of work that they are giving out to employees, how much control they have, and how much support they have throughout the organization.
MONTAGNE: Howard Brightman, thank you very much for talking with us.
BRIGHTMAN: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Howard Brightman is a senior scientist at the consulting firm Environmental Health and Engineering.
A new British study says that people who feel sick after being at work are possibly reacting to psychosocial problems, like stress on the job, not the physical condition of the building.