The doctor is in (Part 1)

RIIWHS201D Work Safely and Follow WHS Policies and Procedures

Is your office sick? Not the staff, but the building itself. Are your workers complaining of headaches, watery eyes, nose and throat irritations, wheezing and coughing, fatigue, itching or other allergy-type reactions?

It could be that we are still suffering the effects of cold and flu season, or that the change in seasons is causing normal allergic reactions.

But … If the symptoms seem to disappear as soon as your workers leave work, you could have a case of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). defines Sick Building Syndrome as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified”1.

According to the United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), over 50% of sick buildings suffer from inadequate ventilation. Poor ventilation can be caused by a number of factors, such as:

  • Insufficient outside air flowing in
  • Dirty air conditioning units and contaminated ductwork
  • Poor work space planning and layout that results in unbalanced ventilation in relation to staff numbers and locations.

Other contributors to SBS include:

  • mould and moisture
  • paint and adhesive fumes
  • carpets that harbour dust mites and other pollutants
  • certain construction materials and that emit chemicals into the air.

In a 2001 report on Sick Building Syndrome, the New South Wales parliamentary committee on Public Works quoted: “… one estimate, based on US studies, suggested that indoor air pollution could be costing the nation $12 billion annually”. The parliamentary report went on to say: “Some research indicates that between 40 and 60 per cent of office environments are affected by Sick Building Syndrome”3.

So what can you do about it?

First of all make sure that there is fresh air flowing through the building – open some windows. If your building is fully air conditioned, get an expert in to inspect and clean the air conditioning unit and ducts. Consider consulting an occupational hygienist who specialises in indoor air quality problems.

Sustainable living”4 suggests using plants to help absorb the toxins in the air, such as:

  • Potted Palms (e.g. Chrysalidocarpus lutescens)
  • Rubber Plant (Ficus robusta)
  • Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’ (Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’)
  • Philodendron (Philodendron sp)
  • Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’).

So if your workers feel fine when they come to work and tired and ill when they go home, look at the health of your building. People are the greatest asset of any organisation. Making sure that the working environment is safe and healthy is an essential part of good business – and it could be as easy as opening a window and getting some plants!

For information on creating safe and healthy workplaces, check out our RIIWHS201D Work Safely and Follow WHS Policies and Procedures Training Package”5.


  1. 1., Definition of Sick Building Syndrome,
  2. Union Safe, Sick Building Syndrome,
  3. New south Wales Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Public Works, Sick Building Syndrome Report,$FILE/5207%20Sick%20Building%20Syndrome%20Report.pdf
  4. Sustainable Living Guide, Use plants to remove toxins,
  5. Pertrain, RIIWHS201D Work Safely and Follow WHS Policies and Procedures Training Package,