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Most organisations aim to maintain a comfortable office environment in summer or winter with air conditioning systems.

These systems could be described as the control of the temperature, humidity and air movement and cleaning of air in confined space. It is sometimes referred to as environmental control.

A building’s air conditioning system could be described as the lungs of the building. The air conditioning system draws in outside air, filters it, heats, cools or humidifies it, circulates it around the building, then expels a portion of it to the outside environment.

There are two major areas of air conditioning systems that constitute a risk in the workplace:

• comfort, and

• disease

Most common complaints relating to air conditioning are about comfort. Some workers complain that the office environment is too hot while others might complain that it is too cold.

This is a common issue in almost every workplace with air conditioning units. The way people experience temperature depends on a range of factors like clothing, body type, individual preferences and expectations just to mention a few.

A comfortable or reasonable temperature level would thus be advisable. A reasonable temperature for a workplace largely depends on the work activities and the environmental conditions of the workplace.

Hygienists generally recommend that temperatures should preferably be between 21°C and 26°C.

• Summer temperature range: 21-24 °C

• Winter temperature range: 24-26 °C

In cases where disagreement occurs, it should preferably be governed by a company policy.

While air conditioning can make workplaces more comfortable it also has risks that should be addressed. Office workers spend long periods of time indoors in air conditioned buildings. If the air conditioning system is not maintained a number of problems, some potentially lethal, can occur.

But how is it regulated in South Africa?

Section 8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act 85 of 1993) stipulates that the employer must provide and maintain, as far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of his employees.

The same section stipulates that the employer is duty bound to establish, as far as is reasonably practicable, what hazards to the health or safety of persons are attached to any work which is performed. This includes risks associated with air conditioning systems. Risks associated with air conditioning should thus be identified and reduced as much as possible.

For the matter of our discussion it would be appropriate to look the indoor air quality of the workplace. The quality of the air many employees breathe at work will largely dependent on the operation of the building’s air conditioning system.

Indoor air quality is an important concern to most businesses because it can negatively impact on the health, comfort, well being, and productivity of employees.

Substandard air conditioning may lead to poor indoor air quality and irritable and potentially very sick workers.

Pollutants in our indoor environment can increase the risk of illness. Illnesses are generally related to bacteria and fungi growing in cooling towers or other parts of the air-conditioning system.

How can we effectively identify and control risk related to indoor air quality? The following factors should be considered:

• Air quality test reports

• Workplace inspections

• Complaints from employees about the air quality

• All complaints should be investigated

Preventative maintenance programmes for air conditioning systems could proof to be an effective preventative measure as well.