Dubai: Allergic reactions, asthma attacks and headaches — do you experience any of these when at work? If your answer is yes, your workplace might be suffering from the ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS).
The US Environment Protection Agency describes it as a situation in which a certain building’s occupants experience acute health effects and discomfort that appear to be linked to time spent within the building. However, no specific illness or cause can be identified. Employees can experience asthma, dry cough, an itching sensation and sneezing fits.
Diane Nobles-Eldakak, an American operations manager based in Abu Dhabi, is amongst those who has experienced this at her former job. When she first moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008, this was a common sight at her office.
She said: “It was an older building. The ventilation was outdated, and sometimes it was hard to breathe. I would be sneezing in the office. I believe that the air-conditioning vents should be checked on a regular basis, especially during the summer months when it is running 24/7. The dust in the vents probably prevent the air from flowing freely throughout the room.”
She has come across this situation in more than one building, including some residential units, too. She has seen mold forming around some air vents, when it has not been cleaned properly.
She said: “I now work with preschoolers, so it is very important that children have good air quality when in school, as most of them stay indoors due to the heat outside. Parents should actually check with their doctors should their children show signs of coughing, sneezing or problems with asthma.”
Dust collecting on the office carpet and desktop can give employees sinus congestion, a blocked nose, allergic reactions, sneezing fits and skin rash, flares of eczema, as stated by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. It could also irritate the eyes. When the dust accumulates on the computer screen, it decreases its sharpness, leading to eye fatigue.
Masood Ahmad Khan, a Pakistani IT corporate solutions expert based in Dubai, has experienced this extreme form of the syndrome at several offices.
He said: “I start sneezing and my eyes get watery. When I met a doctor, I was told that it was happening due to the central air-conditioning. He explained that there are small dust particles and microbes in the ducts, which spread into the air within the office. This is what makes you sneeze.”
When he would go home, he would be perfectly fine and didn’t feel any sneezing fits coming on. He was advised by the doctor to stay away from buildings with the central air-conditioning systems. However, this wasn’t possible for him as he worked there.
He said: “I started having issues with the sinus, too and so had to take medication and a nasal spray daily.”
Luckily for him, his current workplace regularly maintains the air-conditioning units and there is proper ventilation, allowing the employees to breathe easy. He goes the extra mile by ensuring his own desk is constantly clean.
Mariana De’ Carli, an Italian content manager based in Dubai, does not have any existing breathing issues or allergies, but every time she enters the office building, she begins sneezing.
She said: “I sneeze a lot when I come into the office in the morning. This happens quite regularly. Our office doesn’t switch off the air-conditioning, it is on through the night and the temperature varies during the day.”
The World Health Organisation recommends between 18C to 25C as the ideal home temperature for healthy individuals, depending on climatic conditions. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) does recommend keeping the airconditioning at 24C, which is not just in the range of optimal temperature for the body but also helps reduce the electricity consumption.
De’ Carli believes that the temperature in her office is usually around 23C, but sometimes, it does get a “little bit cooler”.
She said: “We have some colleagues who are always complaining of the heat. Additionally, our building maintenance is very irregular in general. We have had problems with things breaking down. But, cleaning is done every day. All the office spaces are cleaned overnight and the carpets are deep cleaned ever so often.”
Yusuf Stapic, a Bosnian media and marketing professional based in Sharjah, believes that it is very important to keep things, including your desk, clean in the office. He finds it concerning when people leave leftover food in the kitchen as it creates some bad odour.
He said: “Some people in my office are very clean, others don’t mind a mess. But, cleanliness is very important for overall satisfaction of the employees. We spend so much time in the office. It may be something small, but a big contributing factor.”
Another thing of concern to him is the ventilation. While some offices may have proper ventilation, others have windows that don’t even open. The temperature also varies, making it uncomfortable for some. In his office, it gets very cold. Then people complain and the air-conditioning is switched off. There is no balance.
Stapic said: “People can also fall sick. It’s important to be comfortable if you’re working nine hours a day. For us, every 10 minutes someone is playing with the air-conditioning. It’s always a battle.”
So, if you have been experiencing similar effects in your office, at least now you know why it was happening. Share your experiences with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.