The answer is in the ventilation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am

Offices weren't invented, they just sneaked up on humankind like microwaveable curry, celebrity 'culture', air rage, global warming and nuclear proliferation.

They have remarkable utility: offices keep human capital together in one easily monitored location. Non-manual workers sell their labour, by the hour or the month, in offices at market rates. Companies use offices to reap economies-of-scale that trickle upwards - leading to business-owners buying or leasing more office space, hence the ever-increasing multiplicity of office buildings in our city.

And, like the Jimmy Choo shoe collection of a tai tai, it looks like it's never going to end. We even knocked down the iconic Ritz-Carlton hotel in Central last year to create more office space.

Through boom times and bust, Hong Kong can't get enough office space. It's a good thing that Hong Kong's offices generate most of its new wealth. However, if office workers suffer from maladies caused specifically by the workplace, less wealth is created. Until recently, few employers wanted to believe this.

If you've ever felt distinctly unwell in the office and only in the office, chances are you would be suffering from sick building syndrome (SBS). Symptoms include itchy eyes, rashes, increased sensitivity of pre-existing allergies, fatigue, aches and pains, disrupted menstrual cycle and panic attacks. SBS refers to problems caused by offices and other communal buildings such as schools and apartment buildings.

Most developers today go to tremendous lengths to create a healthy working environment. And they monitor their buildings accordingly.

The term 'sick building syndrome' originated in the 1970s, and in recent decades, much greater understanding has been gleaned of how to alleviate the phenomenon. But how did the problem arise?

A building's ventilation system is often at the heart of the problem, and can be a font of irritants and allergens. Inadequate ventilation can result in a build-up of pollutants, in which case the indoor environment can end up with air quality that is worse than the air outside.

Interior design factors, such as the configuration of individual offices, office furniture and cubicles, may also interfere with the efficient functioning of ventilation and air flow. Poor office design and insufficient maintenance of the ventilation can amplify the negative effects of biological and chemical challenges to the human body.

Research has shown that low levels of specific pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOC) play a large role in making buildings - and those inside them - sick. These VOCs are compounds that, normally significantly vaporise into surrounding air. If present inside a building, they may cause illness.

Tested chemicals that are used in the construction of, or the cleaning of, office buildings are considered toxic only above certain concentrations, but scientists are finding they often have harmful effects at much lower levels than previously believed.

In the case of tiny amounts of various chemicals linking together to present a health hazard, it is very hard to quantify the scope of the problem, or indeed identify it.

One Hong Kong office worker who this reporter spoke to was so sickened by his office he changed jobs. Leaving abruptly without giving his contractual three months' notice, he requested we not use his name, just his story - as a cautionary tale, with a happy ending.

'After half-a-dozen visits to my doctor, I was told I had Sick Building Syndrome. I had a word with my boss, but he seemed indifferent to my distress and my red, inflamed and flakey hands and hacking cough. Then I had an epiphany on the way home, while noticing a massive airline ad on the side of a bus. I resigned the next day with a short phone call from the airport.

'I'm now back in Hong Kong, and working at a company with superb standards of indoor air quality control and general cleanliness. And there are these lovely plants around my work area, and funky uplifting artwork. I feel like I'm in a spa, albeit one with a business suit dress code.'

You won't suffer from SBS in any office leased by Swire Properties according to Amie Lai, the firm's environmental affairs manager. She ensures that the company adheres to the highest standards for the benefit of the environment and for anybody who has to spend time in a Swire-owned office: cleaning staff, security staff, janitors, workers, chiefs, tenants, clients, and Swire bigwigs included. 'We address environment excellence from building design, monitoring, maintenance and through training of staff. The government is promoting an indoor air quality certification scheme, and we are very supportive of this. We try to exceed all the standards, and have been commended several times.'

Bolstered by Ms Lai's zeal, Swire Properties ensures that its offices are healthy places to work. The fresh air supply is monitored. Ambient temperatures are checked to maximise thermal comfort. Routine measurements are made of the air quality generally, and the amount of CO2 and respirable particulate matter in the air, specifically.

'Most of Swire's buildings receive the highest rating,' Ms Lai said. 'We also provide environmental guidelines to new tenants.'

If you have any concerns about your office building, talk in a non-confrontational manner to your line manager. Information can be found at This government document is the cornerstone of efforts to ensure that workers are able to spend their days in healthy offices.