How to Prevent Respiratory Issues in the Workplace

Breathe in, breathe out — you perform this simple, automatic act more than 23,000 times each day. Infections, pollutants, mold or habits like smoking can all affect your ability to breathe or cause you to take in substances that damage your lungs or overall health.

How to Prevent Respiratory Issues in the Workplace

Many people focus on air quality in their homes, but you spend at least eight hours a day at work. Air quality at work is equally important, and there are some unique issues found in the workplace that aren’t usually seen in the home:

  • Modern buildings typically have complex heating and air conditioning systems that constantly circulate or recirculate air. In many buildings, it’s not possible to open windows. In other cases, opening windows could mean increased exposure to air pollution such as automobile exhaust.
  • Depending on the industry, workers can also be exposed to fumes from manufacturing, dust, gases and chemicals.
  • Even in office buildings, vapors from cleaning products can irritate the nose, throat and lungs.
  • Viruses, bacteria and fungi can be found in any workplace, and can be spread through the ventilation systems, especially if those systems are not properly maintained.

Here are the most common concerns when it comes to indoor air quality and personal health. As well as how you, as an employee or employer can protect yourself and your teammates from respiratory issues in your workplace.

1. Infections

Flu season occurs in the late fall and early winter in the US. One or more influenza viruses are responsible for most flu symptoms during each season and the mix of viruses typically changes from one year to the next. That said, colds can occur at any time of the year, and there are literally hundreds of different viruses that can cause cold symptoms. Bacteria can also cause upper respiratory infections. Legionnaire’s disease is perhaps one of the best-known bacterial respiratory infections, but there are others as well.

To protect yourself:

  • Wash your hands before meals and food preparation, after going to the bathroom, and when your hands are visibly soiled. Ordinary soap is fine and less likely to irritate the skin than antibacterial cleansers.
  • Keep your immune system strong with a healthy diet, adequate sleep (at least seven hours a night), and regular exercise.
  • Although flu shot effectiveness varies from season to season, you may want to get a flu shot each year. Check with your doctor.

How to Prevent Respiratory Issues in the Workplace

2. Smoking

Tobacco smoke in any form is irritating to the lungs. The nicotine in tobacco has been conclusively linked to heart and lung disease, circulatory problems and lung cancer. Exposure to second-hand smoke can also cause these health problems.

To protect yourself:

  • Don’t start to smoke or if you already do, quit. There are many smoking cessation programs available as well as prescription medications and support groups to help you through the process.
  • If smoking is allowed in your workplace, try to avoid those areas, especially if you are sensitive to smoke or have a lung condition such as asthma.
  • Encourage your employer to adopt a non-smoking policy or to at least set aside a designated smoking area (preferably outdoors).

3. Indoor Pollutants

A wide array of indoor pollutants can affect air quality. Carpets, paint, and other manufactured materials may give off various chemical substances. Cleaning solutions and sprays also affect air quality. Even perfume can cause problems for those with allergies or sensitive lungs. To compound the problem, most modern buildings are airtight, which allows these pollutants to build up, especially if the heating and cooling systems are not properly maintained.

To protect yourself:

  • If you notice lingering odors in your workplace, contact the maintenance department.
  • Ask about implementing a fragrance-free workplace policy. The policy should also cover cleaning solutions and the use of indoor air fresheners, which often contain irritating chemicals.
  • If allowed, place indoor plants in your work area. There’s good evidence that plants act as air purifiers. If your area doesn’t have natural light, you can use a grow light.

How to Prevent Respiratory Issues in the Workplace

4. Mold

With the recent flooding from the hurricanes, many business in the south and southwest of the United States will be faced with mold issues. These concerns may last for years, as mold is spread by spores that can lie dormant for a long time. However, mold can occur in any damp area, such as a place where a leak has occurred. Molds can also grow in heating and cooling systems, which typically use water in some way. Poorly maintained HVAC systems can distribute not only mold but also bacteria and viruses throughout a building.

To protect yourself:

  • Immediately notify maintenance about any leaks or damp spots, or if you notice what looks like mold growth. Mold can be any color, although black and green are common.
  • Pay attention to how the air smells — a musty odor can be a sign of mold growth.
  • Clean up liquid spills promptly.
  • If you are involved with mold remediation after a flood or major leak, wear an N-95 mask when working in the mold-infested area.

5. Allergies

Almost any problem with indoor air quality can cause difficulties for those who have allergies. Common allergens include pollens, pet hair and dander, dust, and chemicals. Allergies and asthma often go hand in hand, but allergies can also trigger other symptom such as eczema on the skin. Inhaled allergens may cause a runny nose or eyes, coughing, and difficulty breathing.

To protect yourself:

  • Keep your immune system in good shape through healthy lifestyle choices.
  • For chronic allergies, talk to your doctor about immunotherapy (allergy shots).
  • Wash your hands frequently to prevent the transfer of allergens to your eyes.

How to Prevent Respiratory Issues in the Workplace

The Basics of Preventing Respiratory Issues

Although laws vary from one state to another, most states do have regulations regarding the protection of employees and customers in relation to air quality in a building. Employers should be aware of potential air quality issues and take steps to control workplace hazards.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) recommends that employers:

  • Ensure ventilation systems are working correctly by performing regular inspection and maintenance.
  • Conduct regular building walk-throughs to look for leaks, dirt, signs of rodents, or other potential air quality issues.
  • Conduct testing for radon or asbestos as required by local or state laws.
  • Consider using or having the cleaning service use cleaners and chemicals least likely to cause respiratory issues.
  • Pay attention to worker reports, complaints, and concerns about air quality.
  • Take steps to minimize air quality issues during construction or remodeling projects.

The quality of the air you breathe is important to your health. Given that we spend at least a third of our day in our workplace, it’s important that we, as employees and employers, take some time to make sure our environment is the best one it can be.

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Becca Borawski Jenkins
Becca is a bit like a cat — she’s gone through a few “lives” to get to her current one (with which she’s quite pleased). She earned her MFA in Cinema-Television Production at USC’s famed film school, and her first career was as a music editor (if you’ve watched Scrubs, you’ve likely heard her work).

Becca found her way to career number two through martial arts. She began training in BJJ and muay Thai and started working with professional MMA fighters, building websites, working on fight promotions, and producing videos.

As a competitor in BJJ herself, Becca wanted to get stronger and fitter. In 2005, she became a student at CrossFit Los Angeles where she met WLC co-founders Andy Petranek and Michael Stanwyck. In only a couple years, she became CrossFit Level III Certified, left her entertainment career, and dedicated herself full time to coaching, serving as the Program Director of CFLA and founder of the CFLA CrossFit Kids program.

After seven years as a music editor and then eight years as fitness instructor, Becca segued to her current career — full-time editor and writer. She and her husband are full-time RVers and have a first-hand comprehension of the pros and cons of remote work.