The battle for healthier workplaces: Confronting Sick Building Syndrome

healthcareWe all know that offices can be breeding grounds for illness. Sick workers come into the office and spread their germs to their coworkers. Dirty HVAC systems breed mold and dust and fluorescent lights cause headaches. These issues are annoying, but they aren’t a real liability. For those with sick building syndrome (SBS) the office place can be toxic and their health issues raise the question, are employers liable for chronic illness caused by the work environment? And do employees qualify for worker’s compensation?

Understanding Sick Building Syndrome

SBS is a widely debated condition characterized by irritation of the mucus membranes, fatigue, headaches, and other health problems specifically associated with spending time in an office building. This relationship between specific spaces and illness may seem odd to some, but take a moment to think about how different places make you feel. Urban air quality is distinctly different from that of rural areas, and indoor air quality varies widely from building to building. The fact is that SBS is fundamentally a broad category containing the various illnesses caused by poor indoor air quality, mold, and other irritants and we have clear evidence that these contaminants cause serious illness.

One group studying the impact of indoor air quality on human health is based at Virginia Tech, where scientists and engineers are studying and modeling indoor environments that they refer to as the “exposome.” Engineer Linsey Marr describes the exposome as “the aggregate of all the chemicals, microbes, and radiation you’re exposed to in the water you drink, the food you eat, the air you breathe, and objects you touch.” And what they’ve found is that these environmental factors may be responsible for up to 90% of health issues.

Health in the Workplace

Since individuals have much more control over their home environment than that of their workplace, it’s unsurprising that most experience more discomfort in the office. But when those symptoms escalate to what we call SBS, are business owners responsible for the worker’s injury? Typically, personal injury lawsuits cover worker’s compensation cases, yet in cases of SBS, only a fraction of workers in a given environment typically become ill. And that can make it harder for workers to make a case.

Often, in order to hold a company liable for worker illness, SBS sufferers need to refine their diagnosis. For example, one New York state web designer suffered sinus infections, muscle cramps, and other ailments associated with time in her office building, and the symptoms worsened significantly over time. Ultimately, the woman was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, which had also killed a former coworker, and this made it easier for her to identify the specific cause of the condition – the wet, moldy tiles in her office.

Evidence for Sick Building Syndrome

In addition to the researcher being done at Virginia Tech, there are other studies, including historical research, that provide a stronger foundation for defining SBS as a workplace injury that qualifies for worker’s compensation. One of these key elements is the fact that SBS is linked directly to the energy crisis in the 1970s.

During this time, builders began using new techniques to insulate buildings, and many even eliminated functional windows. These new building approaches damaged the indoor air quality, which was worsened by the off-gassing of new furniture, carpets, and paint.

Many people think of those with SBS as canaries in the coal mine – they’re more sensitive to the pollutants found in today’s environment than the rest of us. That doesn’t mean, however, that those individuals shouldn’t be compensated for harms suffered. SBS, or at the very least its constitutive health problems, is a real workplace injury and sufferers are increasingly holding their workplaces accountable, through structural changes and financial payouts. Businesses need to be prepared to address this new legal threat.

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