Walk into the production area of your facility and take a deep breath. How’s the air? Is it pleasant and relatively fume free? Or does it make you want to cough? Now look around. Is the air clear, or is there a visible haze? How much dust settles onto the floor and surfaces every day?
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is much more than a regulatory requirement. IAQ has a direct impact on employee health, morale and productivity. Increasingly, it’s also important for recruiting and retention of skilled manufacturing workers. That’s why many companies are looking beyond basic regulations and treating IAQ as a competitive advantage.
The clean air connection
Manufacturing workers are often exposed to welding fumes, dust and other airborne contaminants. This exposure impacts productivity in real and measurable ways.
- Poor IAQ is linked to reduced concentration levels and higher error rates, resulting in lower overall productivity and, in some cases, reductions in product quality. A study by the International Center for Indoor Environment and Energy demonstrated that facilities that made improvements to the indoor working environment (as measured by reduced indoor pollutants, enhanced ventilation rates and effectiveness, and improved thermal comfort) increased productivity by 5 to 10 percent.
- Acute effects of welding fume exposure can include shortness of breath and respiratory irritation; eye, nose or throat irritation; and nausea, making it difficult for workers to continue working and increasing the likelihood that they will need to leave early or seek medical care.
- Workers in environments with poor IAQ miss more days of work – an estimated six additional lost workdays per year for every 10 employees. Workers suffering from acute exposure effects such as metal fume fever may miss several days of work as they recover, and they may need up to three weeks for full recovery. Chronic exposure effects include higher incidence of asthma, bronchitis and other lung diseases, and nervous system disorders leading to reduced personal productivity and more missed days.
- Long-term effects of overexposure to welding fumes and other industrial toxins include cancer, kidney damage, emphysema and chronic nervous system effects, potentially leading to early disability or death.
In fact, OSHA estimates that reduced efficiency and worker absences resulting from poor IAQ cost U.S. companies $15 billion annually, and the EPA concurs that healthcare expenses and lost productivity due to poor IAQ in the workplace are likely to be measured in tens of billions of dollars each year. A study by the University of San Diego Burnham-Morse Center for Real Estate estimates that worker productivity gains with improved IAQ average $5,204 per worker.
Recruiting and retention
Improving IAQ can help ensure that your existing employees are comfortable and productive. It can also give you a significant advantage when it comes to retention and recruiting. Today’s skilled workers, especially younger generations, are increasingly aware of the potential long-term health impacts of exposure to welding fumes and other airborne particulates. Many of them factor in environmental considerations, including IAQ, when making employment decisions.
This issue will become especially critical as older generations of skilled workers move into retirement. The Manufacturing Association and Deloitte estimate that there will be a shortage of 2 million skilled workers in the U.S. manufacturing sector by 2025. The American Welding Society anticipates a shortage of 290,000 skilled welding professionals by 2020. In part, this can be attributed to unwillingness of younger workers to work in environments that are unpleasant or likely to put their health at risk.
While technical schools are recruiting aggressively in many parts of the country, in the short to medium term, highly skilled industrial workers are likely to be in high demand. The working environment is expected to play an important role in their decision making. A pleasant, comfortable and healthy environment is a powerful draw for skilled workers comparing multiple opportunities. Facilities with visible haze and dust and air that is unpleasant to breathe may have trouble recruiting employees even with competitive wage and benefits packages.
Poor IAQ also impacts employee turnover. High turnover results in lost productivity due to reduced staffing as well as direct hiring and training costs. It takes a while for new employees to get up to speed and maximize productivity, too. That means companies with high turnover rates are continually playing catch up and operating at lower productivity levels.
IAQ has a large impact on worker morale, which is directly correlated with productivity and retention rates. Employees who are comfortable and who believe that their companies are taking care of their health and comfort put more effort into their jobs and have higher loyalty to their employers.
While OSHA does not have overall IAQ regulations, it does have mandated ventilation requirements for industrial applications as well as specific exposure limits for toxic particulates found in welding fumes and other industrial airborne contaminants. However, many companies are now setting more stringent internal standards for welding fume exposure and IAQ.
The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists has developed voluntary exposure guidelines based on rigorous science. The guidelines are rapidly becoming internationally recognized best practice for the welding industry.
These investments pay off. Improving IAQ provides economic returns in several ways:
- Improved direct daily productivity from workers
- Reduced error rates
- Reduced absenteeism
- Increased employee retention
- Reduced hiring and training costs
- Reduced healthcare and legal costs
- Recruitment of more skilled and productive employees
In fact, studies have shown that investments in IAQ improvement can pay off in as little as two years in terms of improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and higher retention rates. Companies that make IAQ a priority will see direct and indirect returns for years to come.
Have a plan
Companies wishing to improve employee morale and productivity and give themselves an advantage in recruiting skilled workers should consider ambient (facility-wide) air quality as well as specific exposure levels for welders and other production workers.
An effective IAQ plan should include these important steps:
- Evaluation: What processes are generating dust and fumes? What is the character of those fumes? How do they propagate through your facility?
- Goal setting: What are the minimum regulations you must meet? What are your qualitative and quantitative goals in terms of worker satisfaction, productivity, retention and recruiting?
- System design: What kind of system will best help you meet your IAQ goals? What is the most effective and efficient way to improve IAQ?
- Validation: Once the system is in place, is it meeting your IAQ goals? How do particulate levels compare after installation versus before in different parts of your facility?
- Monitoring: How will you know that your solution is continuing to work? What kind of maintenance is needed to keep it operating at peak performance?
An air quality engineer can help companies make effective choices. Improving IAQ doesn’t need to break the bank. In fact, it’s an investment that will pay dividends. Your workers – and your bottom line – will thank you.