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Carbon dioxide & air qualityHigh levels of carbon dioxide decrease our ability to perform our best at our jobs because our brains start losing function. That’s a challenge to both our mental and physical health.
It’s been known for years that when the amount of carbon dioxide is elevated, it can even be deadly. A person can only last 5 minutes if they enter an atmosphere with 90,000 parts-per-million (ppm) of the compound. To safeguard well-being in the workplace, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines say that no office should have any more than 5,000 ppm.
What’s wrong at the office?Office buildings are generally well below that 5,000 ppm concentration from OSHA, and carbon dioxide has long been considered harmless in small quantities. However, that long-held knowledge has been shaken. Syracuse and Harvard scientists say lower levels of CO2 are also dangerous.
The research team looked at two dozen professionals whose tasks consistently require higher-order thinking skills, such as architects and engineers. The research team had the study participants work in the office they provided, allowing them to adjust the environment to contain three different levels of carbon dioxide: 550, 945, and 1400 parts-per-million.
All of these concentrations are realistic possibilities for office buildings, notes lead researcher Joseph Allen. "It was our goal to make sure these simulations were tied to real world environments," he says. "We didn’t want to test the exotic or extreme, we wanted to test conditions that most of us find ourselves in." The basic factors to give you a sense what your office carbon dioxide levels are like is to consider the number of personnel (since we exhale CO2), ventilation, and the level outside the building.
The professionals worked in the makeshift office as they would their ordinary one. Late in the day, the researchers tested mental health by looking at cognition for a full 90 minutes. The ability to think clearly was significantly hindered at the moderate and severe concentrations, with average scores that were 15% and 50% lower than the mild concentration, respectively. The study authors looked at specific types of thinking and found that general comprehension, stress management, and planning were all negatively affected.
Previous science on well-being in the workplace would suggest these CO2 levels were safe, notes mechanical engineer William Fisk of UC Berkeley. “It had been widely believed that carbon dioxide, at the levels found in buildings, had no adverse effects on people,” he says. Actually, Fisk conducted a similar study himself, finding a significant reduction in cognitive performance when the CO2 concentration reaches 2500 ppm.
Improving ventilation for better mental & physical healthThree primary tactics will work to keep the quality of your indoor air high:
1. strong architecture and ventilation construction
2. regular HVAC (heating, ventilation & air conditioning) servicing
3. conscientiousness with any redesigns
The facility manager or a third party should inspect ventilation periodically, looking at “airflow, temperature, humidity, proper occupancy and air balance (pressure differentials) in representative areas (zones or rooms) of the building,” advises the American Industrial Hygiene Association.
Are you getting ready to redesign your office? At Beaux-Arts Group, we “understand” space, providing answers to complex workplace challenges such as ergonomics, technology, regulatory requirements, and environmental factors such as ventilation. Contact a design specialist.