How To Respond When There Is an Environmental Health Problem In Your Building


As public awareness of the impact of the environment on human health heightens, so do the demands of employees to work in a safe, healthy environment free of hazards. Concerns over the health of a building, commonly referred to as Indoor Environmental or Air Quality (IEQ or IAQ), can affect the comfort, health, productivity, and overall satisfaction of building occupants. Common IEQ concerns include but are not limited to:

  • Mold and moisture issues
  • Thermal discomfort
  • Odors/VOCs
  • Ventilation and filtration
  • Hazardous building materials (e.g., lead, asbestos)
  • Water quality
  • Diseases clusters
  • Poor housekeeping

These concerns can often snowball as occupants search the internet and discuss concerns with each other in search of answers. Left unaddressed, these concerns can escalate into worker compensation, civil claims, and employee outrage, as well as put a negative light on the organization.

These concerns can often snowball as occupants search the internet and discuss concerns with each other in search of answers. Left unaddressed, these concerns can escalate into worker compensation, civil claims, and employee outrage, as well as put a negative light on the organization.

People Are the Cornerstone of All Environmental Health Issues

Indoor environmental concerns are defined by people from start to finish. From the first symptoms and concerns expressed to the final decision from a judge or jury, the journey is driven by how people experience and understand the environment. When occupants bring forth issues to leadership, they are looking for answers to their questions. When their questions are ignored, dismissed, or poorly answered, things can escalate very quickly, even in circumstances where they may be working in a healthy environment.

Consequently, there are two pieces to the puzzle you should never lose sight of during indoor environmental quality investigations:

  • The environmental conditions
  • The people’s perceptions.

As such, solving the issue will require attention to both the science of the environment and communication with affected stakeholders.

Listen to Your Occupants and Seek to Understand Their Concerns

Concerns and anxiety about building health are widespread. From internet stories to the nightly news, the discussion is ongoing and can be scary. The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified this. Most Americans spend 8-10 hours of their day at work and in buildings, which leads many to be convinced that the health conditions they experience are a result of this environment. Couple that belief with a lack of environmental information and poor communication, and you set up a perfect storm of speculation, worst-case assumptions, fear, and outrage.

How an occupant will respond to potential solutions will depend upon how much trust they place in your concern for their health and your ability to protect them. Complaints can quickly turn into rumors that embed themselves in the discussions your occupants have with one another. It may not take long for a minor problem to snowball into a major problem for building owners and managers.

Your reaction to their concerns will either elevate their concern or begin to alleviate them. If occupants don’t feel they are being listened to or don’t understand and believe in the corrective actions, the resolution pathway becomes more complicated. Clear and open communication is critical to solving an indoor environmental issue, and the sooner you get on top of the problem, the better the outcome will likely be. Unfortunately, some organizations don’t take action or don’t call environmental health experts until the situation reaches a boiling point.

Do Your Homework to Resolve the Environmental Health Concerns

The first step to resolution is to do your homework. Make sure you have a firm grip on the history of the events and the level of concern your occupants are at. Put yourself in their shoes and view the problem through their eyes.

Next, determine whether the issue is simple or complex. Simple problems often have simple solutions and can be quickly solved. Complex problems will require more attention and time, and more involved occupant communication is paramount to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

The style of communication you choose will vary from situation to situation. Still, by listening, identifying the problem, keeping communication lines open, and taking quick corrective action to resolve concerns, you can often prevent escalation. You’ll come out the other side as the advocate and hero, not the obstructionist and villain.

Stay Focused On Communication Objectives

So you have heard the concerns and you are taking competent, appropriate action. Don’t make the mistake of going silent and handling the situation quietly. Communicate with your stakeholders and invite their feedback every step of the way.

  • Listen to, learn, and understand their concerns, what they’ve observed, and their ideas for solutions. Listen both as an investigator who wants to solve an IEQ problem and as a sympathetic advocate who wants to understand the concerns of others. Seek clues to what may be causing the complaints, but also give them room to vent their frustrations. Their concerns may not have scientific merit, but to solve the problem those concerns must be addressed.
  • Provide sound information. Educate all stakeholders on the issues. Support your points with accurate data and connect the occupants to credible resources concerning the problem. Their discomfort, whether caused by your building or not, is your problem. Help them get relief.
  • Establish a cooperative approach with occupants. Get buy-in. Establish the game plan going forward at the first meeting. They should leave that conversation assured that you are taking the appropriate corrective action to solve the problem. If they don’t believe you in the beginning, they aren’t likely to believe you later. Solicit their opinions. Make sure they think you are on the right path. Make them partners in the search for a solution.
  • Demonstrate good faith and an open forum for communication. Communicate frequently and rapidly when new information emerges. No finding is too mundane to reveal, and no detail should be too grim to admit. They will easily detect whether their health or your own convenience is the chief aim of the process.
  • Build buy-in. Be balanced in your approach. Stay neutral. Avoid making polarizing statements like “This isn’t harmful at all.” If mistakes have been made, acknowledge them up front and early. Don’t overstate your actions. Inform occupants about successes during the process, but don’t toot your own horn too much. Make sure they know they have a say in the process. You must get them to work with you, not against you. Make the effort necessary to get as many as you can on board. If a large majority (e.g., 80-90% +) are happy with the plan, you’ve done well.
  • Provide ample communication. Use group meetings, personal conversations, written reports, letters, email, and other available avenues. And never forget that your actions, appearance, demeanor, timeliness, and follow through will speak louder than anything else.

Make the Problem Worse or Make Things Better: Your Choice

It’s easy to make an indoor environmental problem worse. Poor responsiveness, narrow or one-sided definitions of the problem, inconsistent/contradictory communications, and an action plan formed without stakeholder input can all sabotage the process.

One other pitfall: over-defensiveness. Focusing on proving there is no problem, saying everything is perfectly fine, and not doing something to improve the environment is a recipe for failure. Stakeholders will often think you don’t know what you’re doing, that you’re blaming them, or that you are lying and covering up the issue.

On the other hand, if you want to leverage the IEQ problem-solving process to benefit everyone in your organization, provide concerned parties with reasons to feel better. Seek to assess the nature and depth of their complaints. Address them head-on to uncover the cause, fix the problem, and show them exactly what you have done and intend to do. Take actions and present objective data to demonstrate a healthful environment, then reap the rewards that come with it. You may find that the crisis confronting your building was really an opportunity for improving the environment and strengthening your relationships with stakeholders.

We at FACS want to inform and support you, your team, and your constituency in resolving problems and promoting a more healthful and productive environment. FACS experts are well acquainted with the work of IEQ problem resolution. FACS can provide scientific investigation and analysis, and facilitate communications with concerned and interested parties, from 1-on-1 discussions and town hall meetings to media relations and legal expert witness support. For further information or to get our team on the case, call us at (888) 711-9998.