Guide to Environmental Issues in the Workplace

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Employees spend nearly a quarter of their lives at work, which means work environments are a very important part of most people’s lives. Working in a safe and healthy environment is important for your physical safety, mental well-being and productivity at work.

Poor air quality and ventilation, as well as asbestos-riddled structures, can lead to sick building syndrome, which can compromise the health and comfort of your employees. Not only can poor work environments reduce productivity, research has shown they can be linked to asthma, lung cancer, and other medical issues.

Employers must take positive steps to ensure the health and well-being of their workers. Tackling the problem makes business sense thanks to savings in healthcare management as well as low absenteeism and contained insurance premiums. To make sure your business is following the law, you should review EPA and OSHA guidelines and follow the guidelines. If necessary, contact an environmental consultant to determine cost-effective ways to manage work environment issues.

Here are three things you can do to combat environmental health issues in the workplace:

  1. Learn about environmental issues in business to ensure compliance.
  2. Consult environmental experts to address occupational health issues.
  3. Train your employees in environmental issues in business.

How to tackle environmental health issues at work

1. Learn about environmental issues in business to ensure compliance.

You can find EPA resources online describing issues such as air quality assurance, onsite wastewater management (PDF), and onsite remediation. You should also read OSHA’s handbook for small businesses. These online resources give you a good start in complying with workplace environmental standards. You can also find EPA guidelines online for several specific industries.

2. Consult environmental experts to manage workplace health issues.

At some point, you may decide that you need to consult an expert on environmental issues in the workplace. Check online and local resources to find a consultant who can perform site inspections. Determine the services you need and the experience you want from an environmental consultant.

Yale has compiled a long list of national environmental consulting firms. One choice, EBI Consulting, is a nationwide environmental management service that conducts on-site investigations and determines workplace compliance.

3. Train your employees on environmental issues in business.

While training your employees on company environmental issues is essential to ensuring workplace compliance and helping them assess potential health issues, it can be difficult to know where to start. Before developing company-wide policies or training employees, make sure you understand the environmental laws and regulations that may affect your industry. You should also research state and local policies that apply to your business.

Once you have a solid understanding of environmental laws for businesses, you can train your employees on the proper procedures and policies. If an employee is passionate about environmental issues, consider designating them as an environmental manager within your company to help educate and train others, including new hires.

Common Types of Environmental Problems in the Workplace

If you want to tackle environmental issues in your workplace, the first step is to educate yourself about the ones you are likely to encounter.

1. Poor air quality and ventilation

Poor air quality is most common in manufacturing or work sites that release pollutants, but can also be found in standard office buildings. Air quality issues, including excessively high or low humidity, can lead to eye irritation as well as sinus and respiratory problems.

These problems are compounded in poorly ventilated workplaces, which can circulate viruses, allergens or even gases and residues of cleaning products. Prolonged exposure to poor air quality increases the risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other long-term infections. Employees with asthma or weakened immune systems are at particularly high risk of health problems due to air quality and ventilation issues.

2. Asbestos

Asbestos is an effective insulator that is often used to reinforce or fireproof materials. However, exposure to asbestos can lead to major health problems, which is why it has been banned in several countries (although it is still legal in the United States). It’s especially dangerous because some of the asbestos fibers can stay stuck in the body for decades.

Breathing asbestos can lead to inflammation and respiratory or lung disease, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Employees who smoke or suffer from asthma are at higher risk of asbestos exposure.

3. Mold

Mold can form anywhere moisture lives and reproduce through small spores, making it a common environmental problem in the workplace. It develops from excess moisture, condensation, leaky pipes, drips, or flooding, which are easy to miss if you don’t look for them.

Unchecked mold can not only lead to long-term damage to the building, but also impact the health of your employees. Exposure to damp, moldy environments can cause eye and throat irritation, nasal congestion, coughing or wheezing, and even skin irritation. Although the severity of these symptoms varies, respiratory complications are more common and more severe in people with asthma.

4. Noise

Noise might not be the first environmental issue that comes to mind – after all, environmental noise is present in almost every workplace. However, consistently excessive noise levels can increase stress and decrease the quality of work. Employees may find it difficult to concentrate on tasks or understand their colleagues, which can quickly affect productivity.

Noise pollution also carries short- and long-term health risks for employees. Not only can excessive noise cause headaches or migraines, repeated exposure can lead to hearing loss and even heart disease.

5. Ergonomics

The study of ergonomics deals with working conditions that contribute to the productivity and well-being of employees. Poor workplace ergonomics can cause fatigue and health problems, reducing productivity and the quality of work.

Two common issues that negatively impact employee health are poor lighting and uncomfortable office chairs. Insufficient or excessively bright lighting can not only cause eye strain, but also impact decision-making when it comes to visually assessing the quality of a product. Uncomfortable chairs can lead to poor posture and various muscle, joint and bone disorders, potentially increasing your company’s healthcare costs and employee absenteeism.

By understanding the environmental issues most likely to affect your workplace, you will be better equipped to identify and combat them. If you take steps towards a greener workplace, it will improve the health and productivity of your employees in the short and long term.

Sharon Cullars contributed reporting and writing to this article.


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