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Sick building syndrome

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a poorly understood phenomenon where people in particular work environments have a range of non-specific, building-related symptoms.

SBS symptoms

The symptoms of SBS may include:

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • aches and pains
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • loss of concentration
  • shortness of breath
  • sensitivity to odours
  • eye, nose and throat irritation
  • skin irritation (skin rashes, dry itchy skin)

The symptoms of SBS can appear on their own or in combination with each other. They usually improve or disappear altogether after leaving the building.

Who is affected by SBS?

Anyone can be affected by SBS, but office workers are most at risk. This is because people who work in offices do not usually have control over their working environment. They are often employed in routine work that involves using display screen equipment.

Women appear to be more likely to develop the symptoms of SBS than men. However, this may be due to more women being employed in offices rather than a higher susceptibility.

SBS environments

SBS seems to be associated with certain types of buildings. Most cases of SBS occur in open-plan offices, although people sometimes develop the symptoms while in other buildings that are occupied by lots of people, such as:

  • schools
  • libraries
  • museums

SBS is more likely to occur in buildings with air-conditioning and automated heating and ventilation systems that circulate air around the building.

Risk factors

Since the 1970s, researchers have tried to identify what causes SBS. As yet, no single cause has been identified. However, most experts believe that SBS may be the result of a combination of different factors.

Possible risk factors for SBS may include:

  • poor ventilation
  • low humidity
  • high temperature or changes in temperature throughout the day
  • airborne pollutants, such as dust, carpet fibres or fungal spores
  • chemical pollutants, such as cleaning materials
  • poor standards of cleanliness in the working environment
  • poor lighting that causes glare or flicker on visual display units (VDUs)
  • ozone produced by photocopiers and printers
  • working with display screen equipment for prolonged periods of time
  • psychological factors, such as stress or poor staff morale

Advice for employees

If you think that your working environment is making you ill, talk to your colleagues to see whether they are having similar symptoms.

If SBS appears to be a workplace issue, raise it with your health and safety representative. Your employer has a duty of care to investigate the problem.

The environmental health services of the HSE or the Health and Safety Authority may also be able to provide help and advice about how to deal with SBS.

Visit your GP if you have symptoms of SBS that you are particularly concerned about.

Employer's responsibilities

The health and safety Executive in the UK recommends that employers take the steps outlined below to investigate the possible causes of SBS.

  • Carry out an employee survey to find out whether symptoms are occurring more often than expected. It may also help to identify any obvious causes that can easily be fixed, such as adjusting the office temperature.
  • Check the general cleanliness of the building, including checking that the vacuum cleaners are working properly, that they are regularly emptied and their filters are clean.
  • Check that cleaning materials are being used properly and stored correctly.
    Check the operation of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. In particular, the system that supplies fresh air should be checked.
  • Check the condition and cleanliness of air filters, humidifiers, de-humidifiers and coolingtowers.
  • Check heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system maintenance schedules. Ensure that they are being followed properly.

Once the steps listed above have been completed and any necessary actions have been taken, employers should carry out another employee survey at a later date to find out whether the symptoms of SBS persist.

If SBS symptoms are still present, a more detailed investigation will be required. This can be carried out by a building services engineer or another similarly qualified consultant.


Workplace health

There are a number of measures that you can take at work to help prevent the symptoms of sick building syndrome (SBS). For example, you can:

  • open windows to avoid getting too hot
  • organise and prioritise your workload to help prevent stress
  • ensure that you are sitting correctly in relation to your desk and computer to help prevent back problems
  • maintain good posture while you are working to help avoid repetitive strain injury (RSI)
  • take regular screen breaks of between five to 10 minutes (if you use a computer) for every hour that you are sitting at your desk
  • lift or handle objects correctly at work to avoid injury
  • eating healthily and improving your general level of fitness can help you maintain high energy levels and good posture while at work

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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