Ventilation at work
Poor ventilation at the workplace may cause health and safety hazards that could put your workers at risk.
Ventilation is a process in which clean or fresh air (usually outdoor air) is intentionally introduced into a space and the stale air (unclean, polluted or stagnant air) is removed.
Workplaces must be ventilated to allow work to be carried out without risk to health and safety.
Poor ventilation in the workplace requires immediate attention and action, regardless of the severity of any health issues workers may be experiencing, or any damage occurring to the building’s interior or exterior.
What are the harms?
Harmful ventilation systems in the workplace create an atmosphere where minimal air movement results in the accumulation of contaminated air, exposing workers to potentially hazardous conditions for the duration of their working day. They may then suffer the health effects beyond the workplace.
Problems may include:
- Elevated levels of carbon dioxide
- Increased exposure to legionella
- Pollutants released from off-gassing and emissions
- Uncomfortable humidity and temperature
- Chronic health conditions, AKA “Sick building syndrome”
How does ventilation affect the health and safety of your workers?
Ventilation at the workplace can have positive and negative impacts on building occupants. Good ventilation systems enable productive workplaces, providing an environment for workers to remain alert, productive, and focused on their work tasks. Poor ventilation systems, however, can cause potential health problems resulting in decreased productivity and increased sick leave.
Good ventilation systems:
- remove contaminants, such as pollutants, bacteria, moisture and unpleasant odours, including body odours and can reduce the spread of airborne viruses.
- regulate air flow, by providing a way of controlling the air flow into and out of the building or workplace
- maintain humidity and reduce condensation, thereby reducing mould growth and damp conditions within the office environment or workplace
- reduce temperatures, to prevent a hot and stuffy work atmosphere by providing a well-ventilated room or area that is more relaxing and a comfortable workspace for people.
Poor ventilation can result in workers suffering:
- fatigue, drowsiness, poor concentration
- respiratory infection, shortness of breath, coughing, and sneezing
- hypersensitivity and allergies
- dry or irritated throat, eyes, nose, and skin
These health effects often are not noticeable immediately at the workplace and therefore workers may not associate these symptoms with poor ventilation in the office building.
An indication there may be a problem with workplace ventilation is when a worker experiencing these symptoms improves after they leave the workplace or has been away for an extended time, such as over a weekend or on a vacation.
The psychological health of workers may also be affected by poor ventilation as people continue to work in surroundings affecting their health, which may contribute to conditions such as stress, anxiety or depression. The reality that some workers have financial commitments preventing them from finding alternative work and/or limited control or influence over their immediate workplace environments may also compound this problem.
What can you do?
A Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that ventilation enables workers carry out their day-to-day work without risk to health and safety. A workplace inside a building may use natural ventilation like open doors and windows, or use mechanical ventilation such as fans, extraction units, or air-conditioning systems.
The use of large and complex air handling systems, especially in multi-tenanted buildings, will likely require specialised servicing and maintenance by a competent person, such as a Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning technician. It is recommended that you meet Australian Standards for the servicing and maintenance requirements of air handling systems.
How to identify potential ventilation problems
If there is an indication the ventilation systems are not working properly, the following simple measures may help identify the cause of the ventilation issues or provide an insight into the indoor air quality available:
- review the humidity and temperature levels.
- check the air flow is adequate.
- check the direction of the air flow is adequate.
- check the air distribution (airflow pattern) is adequate.
- investigate the ventilation system to make sure it is operating properly.
- use an inspection checklist to determine any areas of concern with indoor air quality. The checklist may contain items such as ensuring walls, ceilings and floors are free of mould, check for sources of pollution, making sure humidifiers and air conditioners are working, etc
- engage a qualified person to service the ventilation systems or conduct air sampling and follow up on their recommendations.
Service and maintain ventilation systems
Regular inspection, testing and maintenance of ventilation systems is critical to ensure they are operating safely and in optimal condition.
Failing to service and maintain ventilation systems may lead to problems with moisture, mould and air pollutants.
Service and maintenance of ventilation systems may involve:
- Scheduling regular inspections.
- Repairing or replacement of damaged, faulty or malfunctioning components.
A Person with Management or Control of Plant (such as mechanical ventilation systems) must ensure that the maintenance, inspection and if necessary testing of the plant is carried out by a competent person (i.e. HVAC technician) according to the manufacturer’s recommendations or if these are not available, in accordance with the recommendations of the competent person.
Technical help and resources
Codes of Practice and Guidance
- For more information about ventilation see Code of Practice: Managing the work environment and facilities; in particular, 2.7 Ventilation and 2.8 Heat and Cold.
- Ventilation systems are a major engineering control method used to maintain a safe atmosphere for the storage and handling of hazardous chemicals. For more information, see Code of Practice: 4.1 The hierarchy of control – Engineering controls – Ventilation.
SafeWork NSW Guidance and Resources
- SafeWork NSW webpage: Mould at work
- SafeWork NSW webpage: Maintaining thermal comfort in indoor work environments
- Work Health and Safety Act 2011
- Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017
- SafeWork Australia Information Page: Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HCAV) systems
- NSW Health Department website: Legionnaires disease
- Safework Australia website: Improving ventilation in indoor workplaces – Covid-19