Signs of Potential Problems in the Workplace

Learn what to do if you suspect unhealthy air at work.

Depending on the industry, workers may be at risk from exposure to tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide, allergens, bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that build up indoors. Workers may also be exposed to airborne contaminants on the job such as dusts, welding fumes, gases, solvent vapors and mists.

Some situations are emergencies.

They include:

  • Spills or releases of hazardous materials or flooding onto porous materials
  • Sewage spills
  • Gas leak
  • Sudden onset of headaches, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, which may signal carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Widespread breathing difficulties

In those situations, take immediate steps to get people out of danger and limit harm:

  • Notify and seek help from the appropriate emergency agency, such as the fire department, gas supplier, health department, or hazardous waste authority.
  • Evacuate the area if necessary.
  • Get medical help for people with symptoms.
  • Ventilate the area. Use temporary fans to help exhaust the air.
  • Tell other building occupants about the problem.
  • Fix the source of the problem.

If you aren't sure:

Do health symptoms improve when you leave the building? Do they return when you come back into the building? If so, you may have an indoor air pollution problem and should explore the following potential sources.

  • Are there machines indoors that could be emitting odors, particles or chemicals, including copiers or printers?
  • Are there chemicals used in the work that emit odors, particles or gases? Are the emissions properly controlled and/or exhausted to the outside?
  • Have you recently remodeled or added new furniture, carpeting or painted?
  • Has anyone brought in materials or products that give off odors, gases or particles, such as sprays, perfumes or fragrances?
  • Has food been stored in the kitchen or other areas of the workplace?
  • Has kitchen or food garbage been removed?
  • Are there outside sources of odors or chemicals coming indoors, such as vehicle exhaust, roofing materials or dust from construction?
  • Are heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems working properly and well-maintained? Are they sized properly for the space? Are vents or grilles blocked?
  • Is anyone smoking indoors? No one should smoke indoors.
  • Can you see or smell mold or mildew?
  • Is the humidity regularly above 50 percent?
  • Are there leaks or standing water anywhere?

Tell someone.

If you suspect your workplace has unhealthy air, take these three steps:

  1. Let your supervisor and building management know there may be a problem. Follow the usual and proper steps to alert them, as you may need to document the steps you took later.
  2. Tell your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Report the symptoms to your company's health or safety officer. The state or local health department may also need to be informed. Ask the health or safety officer if you should do that yourself.
  3. Work with management as they investigate the problem. The process may take longer than anyone wants because the underlying problems may be difficult to identify.

Your employer is legally responsible for informing you of general and specific hazards connected with your job. Your employer is also responsible for providing you with a safe and healthful workplace. You can help by being alert for unsafe and unhealthful working conditions and reporting any problems.

Investigating the problem.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has guidelines for investigating workplace indoor air complaints. The guidelines include the following steps:

  • Employer and employee interviews. Questions are asked about health complaints and potential sources (such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems). Other questions explore recent changes (such as remodeling or operations changes) that may have caused problems. For employees, questions are asked about their health complaints and symptoms, as well as their medical and work histories.
  • Walk-around inspection. Inspecting the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems is an important step, as many of indoor air problems involve those systems. The inspection looks for potential indoor problem sources, as well as outdoor sources that may be brought indoors via the ventilation system.
  • Collection of air samples. Sometimes—though not always—samples of the air in the workplace can help identify the problem. Sampling the air should not be the first or only step taken, however.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has a free Health Hazards Evaluation program that may be able to assist in finding the sources of health problems in a workplace. 

Page last updated: July 26, 2023

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