Most employees are familiar with mental roadblocks and other problems with cognitive activity. It’s part of the job, particularly when you stare at a screen all day long.

However, there may be more to the picture than meets the eye. A new study suggests that poor indoor air quality could be the prime reason you can’t think straight.

Study Overview

In a paper published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives, several researchers reported on the debilitating effects that poor air quality can have on office productivity. The study compared the cognitive function of those who worked in offices that have typical or high pollution levels versus that of people who work in well-ventilated buildings that had taken green initiatives to achieve below-average indoor air pollution.

The results showed considerably higher cognitive function in offices with better air ventilations systems. The study was performed on 24 people who were exposed to a variety of indoor air quality conditions for six working days.

The ones who worked in buildings with low pollution levels scored an average of 61 percent higher on cognitive tests. The results were the same for all participants and cognitive abilities tested. Similarly, when low levels of building pollutants were combined with low CO2 levels, the cognitive scores were 101 percent higher than in the typical building.

Lead study author Joseph Allen, the director of Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, wrote, “These results suggest that even modest improvements to indoor environmental quality may have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers.”

Workplace Impact

Air quality has a significant impact on productivity within buildings, but this fact is largely unknown or ignored. “We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors and 90 per cent of the cost of a building are the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought,” Allen comments.

Many people are wholly unaware of the pollutants that enter their workplace. Most are under the impression that office-occupied buildings are safe from the pollutants that come from factories and outside emissions.

But that’s not the case. Most office buildings are above or near warehouses and factories. Plenty of pollutants can surround such buildings, and enter through the HVAC system.

An article from Robovent, experts in the importance of air filtration, states that there are many airborne contaminants in factories. “These pollutants include oil mist, dust, and fumes containing manganese, lead, hexavalent chromium, and other toxic elements…. Those health threats are the primary reason the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) monitors plants … [to make them] a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

This study also comes in the wake of a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that cited record-high greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide levels have surpassed the 400 parts per million level, which is the point beyond which global repercussions are predicted to result.

Prevention Steps

The cognitive and health impacts of air pollution in the workplace cannot be understated, and they will continue to spread if preventive measures are not taken. In response to this study and others like it, offices are urged to adopt green initiatives that will improve indoor air quality and employee health.

Installing proper air filtration and ventilation systems can significantly reduce the problem. The proper system will filter, recycle, and reuse contaminated air, and only pump in air with low levels of pollutants.

Executives can also take steps to reduce emissions from their factories and warehouses by employing energy-saving measures. Adhering to OSHA and EPA regulations can reduce the threat of excess emissions and contaminated air in the workplace.