Is the office out to get you?

Feeling sick and tired? If the thought of entering the office fills you with nausea, you’re not alone. Chances are if you’re sick, so is your office. 
THEY’VE solved a lot of today’s problems in those sci-fi shows on the telly. Deep sea travel, deep space travel, intergalactic peace mere trifles, really. What today’s earthlings really need to know is: How do the crews of these futuristic ships manage to live for months without fresh air or sunlight, while staying as fit and cheerful as a winning team of football jocks? No one in Star Trek or Seaquest DSV ever has sore eyes, a rasping cough and lethargy after a tough day on the control console. They never find their sleeping quarters are sickeningly hot, while those working near the floor-to-ceiling windows catch endless colds and must wear scarves to ward off the draughts. And despite all the high-tech gizmos, no one ever seems to develop an allergy to the chemical fumes from computers, desks, carpets, and room fittings.

In short, there is no resemblance to real life in the average high-rise office building of today. Somewhere along the way to warp drive, scientists must have sorted out the problems of sick building syndrome.

We should be so lucky. Many of Australia’s two and a half million office workers now spend more than 90 per cent of their waking lives in artificially controlled environments that are potentially hazardous to the health. The result, for a few human occupants, is a severe illness such as an allergic reaction or asthma attacks.
Many more suffer frequent respiratory infections and a low-grade malaise in worktime that disappears when they leave the office, a pattern known as sick building syndrome or building-related illness.

Add to this the computer-age problem of injuries to hands, arms and shoulders from overuse of keyboards, and the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle (absenteeism from illness due to poor eating and exercise patterns is estimated to cost Australian industry more than $6 billion a year), and you begin to wonder: Is life in the office bad for your health? The answer is more likely to be “Yes” if you work in a new building, one that is 12 to 18 months old, or a recently refurbished one. The World Health Organisation says that up to 30 per cent of such offices will be affected by sick building syndrome, leaving occupants with symptoms such as wheezing, coughs, headaches, undue fatigue, sore eyes, noses and throats, and nausea and dizziness.
It is not known how many people are affected, and it is suspected that many problems go unreported.

This makes it hard to tell how serious the problem is. Cynics dismiss the syndrome as the product of neurotic people making up symptoms, and they are the kinds of symptoms easily faked or imagined.
Some overseas research does indicate that psychological factors are at play; workers who have boring jobs and little control over their environment are more likely to complain. The Welsh School of Architecture surveyed 2000 office workers and found some direct links between buildings and ill-health but also discovered, says the school’s Nigel Vaughan, that “You can be working in a sod of an office with all the classic signs of a sick building and still feel fantastic as long as your bosses respect you and there’s no threat of being thrown on the dole.” But consultants, such as the team from the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission’s Worksafe Australia, say they nearly always find a physical cause for health problems in buildings that they are called in to investigate. It is true that some people are affected by low levels of contaminants and others not, they say, but that is because they are more sensitive to them, just as some people are affected by cat hair or pollen and others are not.

The major culprit, in many cases, is poor air-conditioning. Peter Williams, a senior lecturer in the faculty of architecture, building and planning at Melbourne University, has surveyed nearly 600 Melbourne office buildings in the past six years and found few came up to scratch. “It’s staggering how much of the building stock is affected, ” Williams says.

Nearly half the air-conditioning systems did not allow access to areas that needed to be kept clean and dry to prevent them becoming a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria, including the potentially fatal legionella. Eighty-two per cent failed the current Australian standards for fresh air. Many recirculated too much stale air because the building managers believed it was cheaper than having to heat or cool fresh air, Williams says.

In 63 per cent of the buildings, the fresh air intake itself was contaminated, often because it was stupidly situated and affected by car emissions from the basement carpark, or by the system’s outflow vent (drawing back the stale air the system was trying to expel). Some buildings had no fresh air intake at all.

Such faults are exacerbated in new or newly refurbished buildings because much of today’s furniture, carpets, curtains and fittings give off gases, known as “volatile organic compounds”, when new.
The vapors come from substances such as glues, solvents, fire retardants, and the foam in upholstery; new computers can emit gases when the plastic and wiring inside them heats up.

It is an invisible plague, and the toll on health is much harder to see or understand than, say, the problem of the manual worker who does his back when a crate falls on him. That makes sick building syndrome a natural target for critics, who dismiss it as a fantasy of the workshy. But the last time cynics tried to brush aside a new-fangled occupational health problem, they were proved badly wrong.

In the mid-1980s repetitive strain injury was nicknamed “kangaroo paw” and derided as a form of hypochondria unique to Australians.
Now overuse injuries account for 60 per cent of all workplace illnesses in America, making them the fastest-growing occupational ailment in that country.

In contrast Mark Towler, health and safety officer with the Victorian Trades Hall Council says overuse injuries in Australian offices have plummetted over the past decade due to changing attitudes by employers, who now take the problem seriously, and
to design changes in computer equipment and office furniture. Multi-skilling of employees as companies downsize also means that fewer people are now tied to keying at high speed for eight hours a day, he says.

Victoria’s WorkCover figures show that RSI claims by workers in a group of office-based industries have fallen from 922 in 1985- 86 to 186 in 1993-94.

But the jury is still out on other potential computer health hazards, such as radiation exposure and eyestrain, Towler says.
It is possible that staring for hours a day at a screen damages the eye’s ability to adjust focal length, which would impair the ability to drive and other tasks.

What is clear is that sitting in an office day after day, with little or no vigorous physical exercise, takes its toll on health.
Regardless of the population of an organisation, the most common and costly health problems are always consistent: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and poor physical fitness.

Says Julie Bond, programs manager for Life. Be in It: “People sit down from the time they get in until morning tea, except to get up to walk a short distance to the coffee machine, where they have a coffee which accelerates their blood pressure. Then they sit until lunchtime when they walk to the canteen . . . More and more research confirms that your body can’t cope as well with stress when you’re run down and inactive.” This, at least, would seem to be under the individual’s control.
Bond says that 30 minutes’ exercise a day, the equivalent of a brisk walk at lunchtime, would be enough to improve fitness. But even that time might be hard to find, as unpaid overtime increases in the struggle to hold on to jobs while unemployment is high.

The cost of all this is not only measured by the toll on worker health and well-being. It has a significant impact on the company bottom line as well. Professor Wai-on Phoon, head of Worksafe Australia’s occupational medicine unit, says that sick building syndrome “does affect productivity; some people just feel so tired”.

David Rowe, senior lecturer in building services with the University of Sydney, set out to find the monetary cost of an uncomfortable office environment. “One hypothesis is that if people were feeling unhappy about the place they work in and decided
they were sick enough to take time off from work, it’s quite possible that they might take more time than they would if they had an attractive workplace. If each of Australia’s 2.5 million office workers took an extra half a day of sick leave per year, it would cost industry about $130 million a year.” At least one case has made it to court. In March the Sydney solicitors Lane and Lane sued the developer of their building, over alleged fundamental design shortcomings in the air-conditioning of its city offices. The case was settled out of court, but not before it had eaten up the not-inexpensive time of six barristers, five solicitors and a Federal Court judge.

Generally, though, the current economic climate militates against solving many sick building problems. Buildings will continue to be built on the cheap by developers who cut corners; to be managed by companies that cut maintenance costs by failing to do maintenance; to be fitted out by tenants who have no idea about what their floor- to-ceiling partitioning is doing to the air flow, or about the consequences of cramming too many people into too small a space.
The problems are fixable, Williams says, “But they cost. They certainly do cost.” That’s the thing about sci-fi, of course. In its fantasy world, no one has to deal with the realities of stumbling economies, cut-throat competition, the need for organsations to be lean and mean. You don’t find Star Fleet Command cutting corners because the budget is tight this year. In real life it is different; who needs the challenge of sci-fi’s windswept planets and roaring beasties when our own buildings are out to get us? Beam us up, Scottie.

First published in The Age.