SBS (Sick Building Syndrome)

Sick building syndrome (SBS) refers to a collection of symptoms caused by poor air quality in the workplace environment. The World Health Organization says that up to 30 per cent of new or refurbished offices may be linked to SBS symptoms. Sick building syndrome can lead to increased staff absenteeism and staff turnover. Improving air quality in the office environment and, in particular, increasing the number of air exchanges, is the best approach to preventing and managing Sick building syndrome in employees. In the future, the 'green building' approach may help avoid Sick building syndrome altogether, by applying building principles that allow offices to be constructed with better ventilation and improved indoor air quality. Until then Sick building syndrome is a very real issue for the UK economy.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency provides a good working definition of SBS as: "Situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a particular building, but for which no specific cause can be identified."

The first reports of SBS date back from the late 1970s. The main contributing factor is thought to be a change in ventilation standards to conserve energy in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo. This meant fewer air changes in office buildings. At the same time, HVAC systems were being introduced but not always delivering sufficient levels of performance.

Anyone can be affected by SBS but it is most common among office workers. Women seem to be more at risk of SBS, but this may be because they are more likely to work in an office. One survey suggests that more than half of people working in air-conditioned offices experience some degree of SBS.

Sick building syndrome tends to occur in buildings that have to air-condition and that are fitted with automated heating and ventilation systems for circulating air. There is actually no one known cause for SBS but factors that may be involved include:

  • Pollutants such as dust, fungal spores and carpet fibres
  • Ozone emitted from office equipment such as printers
  • VOC Pollution, such as formaldehyde, which may outgas from office furnishings, including carpets
  • Outdoor air pollution penetrating the building, such as vehicle exhaust fumes entering buildings next to busy roads
  • Poor lighting and glare from computer screens
  • Poor ventilation

In short, SBS tends to occur in buildings where there are poor ventilation and elevated levels of airborne pollution.

The symptoms of SBS are many and varied. They include:

  • Sick Building SyndromeTiredness (often extreme)
  • Lethargy
  • Irritability
  • Headache (dull, rather than throbbing)
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Aches and pains
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Dry and/or sore throat
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sensitivity to odours
  • Poor concentration
  • Skin Rashes
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat

A person with SBS may have a few, or many, of the above symptoms. The presence of the symptoms may be linked with a particular room, or zone, within a building, or it may be present throughout the whole building. Usually, symptoms improve or even disappear once outside the building, although severe symptoms may take a matter of days to clear up. Symptoms tend to be more pronounced in the winter months and in northern climates.

Not usually. However, some particularly sensitive individuals have been reported to have ongoing problems even after they have left the building associated with their symptoms.

First of all, check with colleagues. If more than one person is suffering symptoms, then SBS is more likely to be the cause. If you then do suspect SBS you should raise it with your on-site health and safety representative and report it to your line manager. The local authority and the Health and Safety Executive will be able to provide help and advice.

A link between the workplace environment and the presence of symptoms may be sufficient to establish a diagnosis of SBS. However, because the condition is not well understood, delays in diagnosis are not uncommon. Sick building syndrome should be distinguished from Building-Related Illness (BRI) where a clearly diagnosable illness is associated with a specific cause within the workplace environment. An example of BRI is Legionnaire's disease, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia, caused by exposure to Legionella pneumophila bacteria which may be found in purpose-built water systems, such as cooling towers. The symptoms of SBS are also very similar to those of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Clearly, a person with MCS may find their symptoms triggered by substances present in the workplace environment so, in such cases, the two illnesses are really one and the same. The distinguishing feature of SBS is the way the symptoms are alleviated within hours of leaving the building (although in severe cases, it may take days before the person feels well again).

There are a number of measures that employers can have carried out to improve the workplace environment. These include:

  • Bringing in clean, fresh air from outside (using an InFlow duct in polluted cities).
  • Using proven air filtration technology to remove airborne contamination.
  • Ensuring that air filters, humidifiers, heating, air conditioning systems are regularly checked and maintained. Filters should be replaced according to manufacturer recommendations.
  • Understanding the best cleaning practices and making sure that cleaning products are properly stored, are suitable for their application and removed where appropriate. Using vacuum cleaners with a HEPA filter can be effective.
  • Reducing exposure to electronic devices where possible.