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Offices in India unable to maintain healthy indoor environment, reveals study

GBCI-India

India, December 14, 2021: GBCI India has released a joint research study, “Healthy Workplaces for Healthier People,” in collaboration with Saint Gobain Research India. The study assesses the indoor environment in Indian workspaces and the impact it has on building occupants, and highlights the correlation between indoor spaces and occupants’ health and well-being. The study revealed there is considerable room for improvement in Indian offices when it comes to maintaining a healthy indoor environment.

Spanning a pre-pandemic timeframe, the study involved evaluation of 30 offices located in nine Indian cities covering three major climatic zones, and included a mix of green certified and non-certified spaces owned by private and government agencies. Collectively, these offices had an occupancy of about 30,000 people –1,500 of whom also participated in an online survey as part of the study. Building data collected from project teams and professionals who work at the buildings along with onsite measurements and inspection; and occupant feedback collected through online surveys were all analyzed to determine whether the buildings were delivering healthy and comfortable spaces.

The study evaluated important parameters such as indoor air quality, lighting, access to outdoor views, thermal comfort, and acoustics that define workspace quality. Out of the 30 offices studied, only one had all the indoor air contaminants within limits prescribed by standards. Both indoor-generated contaminants and those entering from the outdoors were a concern due to the adverse impact they have on occupant health. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were the most common non-compliant indoor air contaminants, followed by particulate matter (PM) and formaldehyde (CH2O). Poor lighting and lack of access to good outdoor views from the workstations were some of the other prevalent issues.

1,500 employees from these 30 offices participated in an online survey as part of the study. The aim was to understand what the occupants feel about their workspace and how it impacts them. Occupant surveys are usually considered a basis for identifying problem areas and evaluating the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of a space. However, the findings of the study revealed that critical indoor parameters like air quality and lighting were primarily unnoticeable by occupants. Despite poor lighting and air quality observed, 76% of people reported satisfaction with lighting and 68% with air quality, highlighting that occupants’ perception does not accurately reflect IEQ performance. This indicates how critical it is to regularly monitor the IEQ performance and to educate occupants on its impact on their short and long-term health.

Mili Majumdar

Commenting on the study findings, Mili Majumdar, Managing Director, GBCI India and Senior Vice President, USGBC, said, “We spend most of our lives inside buildings. As such, the ways they are designed, built and operated have a direct effect on our health, not to mention our overall wellbeing and productivity. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for safe and healthy workspaces and businesses must ensure occupant safety by pursuing and maintaining high quality workplaces.”

Unnikrishnan AR

Unnikrishnan AR, Managing Director, Saint-Gobain India, Glass Business, added, “The ‘Healthy Workplaces for Healthier People’ study was an extensive exercise carried out over a period of three years, with deep data analysis spanning over a year. We are confident that the insights from this study will help us design and implement better and safer workspaces, thereby aiding our pursuit to make the world a better home.”

Findings from the study reveal most offices are unable to maintain healthy indoor environment. Inadequate design, poor operation and maintenance practices and building managers’ and occupants’ lack of awareness of IEQ are the reasons behind poor-quality indoor environments in most offices.

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Unhealthy indoor air is  a prominent concern

  • Only 1 out of the 30 offices studied maintained healthy indoor air quality.
  • In 73% of the spaces, the levels of three or more contaminants did not meet the prescribed limits. Both indoor-generated contaminants and those entering from outdoors were a concern due to the adverse impact they have on occupant health.
  • CO2 levels, which are generally used to evaluate the ventilation adequacy of any space, were found to be higher than the recommended threshold in 75% of the office spaces.The offices that accurately measured CO2 levels through sensors were able to maintain adequate levels.
  • 67% of the offices had NO2 levels higher than the recommended threshold. Chemical filters that can remove NO2 from outdoor air were found in only 10% of the spaces.
  • The concentration of Particulate Matter (PM), which is a major health risk in most urban areas of India, was higher than the threshold in 63% of spaces and 40% of the spaces did not have filters installed to trap fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
  • Offices with well-maintained ventilation systems were able to filter out the PM particles adequately when the outdoor pollution levels were at ‘moderate level’. When it goes beyond, it is recommended to use additional filtration technologies.
  • 45% of the survey respondents reported experiencing eye irritation, fatigue, dizziness, coughing and other symptoms which can be attributed to poor indoor air quality.

Poor lighting conditions are prevalent

  • 64% of offices had lighting levels lower than what is recommended.Only 10% of offices met the standard for Equivalent Melanopic Lux (EML) during morning hours. EML is described as a way of measuring the biological effects of light on humans.
  • In some offices, Task/Desk lighting was provided to improve the lighting levels. However, it was observed that the occupants were not using it.
  • 60% of the survey respondents reported problems related to their eyes. Eye strain was the main problem reported, which is due to low lighting conditions.

Access to external views is important for people’s health and well-being

  • 74% of people reported no external views or only poor-quality views from their workstations.
  • People with good outdoor views had higher energy levels at the end of the day and reported fewer sleep-related problems than those with poor or no views.

Occupants having no or partial control over the temperature set points resulted in thermal discomfort

  • In most buildings studied, the thermal conditions were controlled centrally by the building management system, and only a few buildings provided complete control to occupants to modify thermal settings. In most cases, only the meeting rooms had a thermostat whose setting could be modified by the occupants. In open office spaces, the facilities team controlled the thermostat temperature set points. This led to overcooled or undercooled spaces and resulted in occupant discomfort.
  • While the occupants’ perception indicated a preference for slightly warmer spaces, 56% of the spaces operated on the cooler side of the comfort zone.
  • Therefore, operating buildings on the warmer side of the comfort zone will keep occupants happy and also result in significant energy savings.

In 73% of spaces, levels of interior background noise were higher than the standard threshold.

  • The proximity of HVAC equipment, inadequate noise isolation for the equipment room and exposed ceiling with open ductwork were the main reasons for high interior noise levels.

Ceiling treated with Acoustics tiles performed best in optimizing the echo or Reverberation Time (RT) in the space.

Which indoor environmental factors impact occupants the most?

  • High levels of nitrogen dioxide in the indoor air, lack of access to good outdoor views and low  EML levels in the morning hours were the top factors affecting people’s overall happiness with their office environments.
  • Main factors linked with occupants feeling fatigued at the end of the day were lack of access to good outdoor views, poor thermal comfort conditions and high levels of indoor background noise.

Can workplace improvements encourage people to lead a healthier life?

The online survey taken by 1,500 employees from the 30 offices, also collected information on their health and lifestyle which was analysed to understand the general trend in occupants’ health, lifestyle and workplace habits.

The study revealed that –

  • 45% of the survey respondents reported experiencing eye irritation, fatigue, dizziness, coughing and other symptoms which can be attributed to poor indoor air quality.
  • 60% of the survey respondents reported problems related to their eyes. Eye strain was the main problem reported.
  • 44% of survey respondents reported having one or more lifestyle-related health issue in the past year and 15% reported having more than one health issue.
  • As per the survey data, 71% of respondents reported getting less than seven hours of average daily sleep, and 37% of occupants reported sleep-related problems like difficulty falling asleep and not getting enough restful sleep.
  • 64% respondents reported sitting for 8 to 10 hours daily at their workstation, and only 19% took a break every hour.
  • 66% of the surveyed occupants reported musculoskeletal issues.

While the conversation around the quality of indoor spaces and its effects on occupants is not new, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on its importance. The expectations from workplace environments are destined to change in the post-pandemic world. The insights from the “Healthy Workplaces for Healthier People” study will prove useful to company leaders, building owners, office managers, architects and developers in evaluating and improving health performance of existing facilities and planning new projects, as healthy people in healthy places would be imperative to ensure a healthy economy.

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