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Corporate Citizenship

Good businesses ensure that workers are happy and healthy – productivity depends on it. Low satisfaction, medical complaints and absenteeism affect employee performance and reduce output. Where legislation exists protecting workers’ health and well-being (as it does in much of the world), it should be viewed not as a minimum legal requirement but as a means to securing the future success and growth of the company. Good corporate citizenship helps businesses to maximize the value of their workforce and make more efficient use of resources.

One parameter that is often overlooked is the impact of air quality on worker experience. Given that most workers’ daily lives are spent in a single location, this is certainly not something that should be ignored. Factories, warehouses, office blocks and shops are all susceptible to airborne nasties – either as a by-product of day-to-day business activity or as a consequence of a building’s infrastructure or location. If neglected, this can have a deleterious effect on the workforce. A meta-analysis by the Guardian newspaper found that poor air quality lowered performance by up to 10% on measures such as typing speed. Ventilated work spaces were found to have 35% fewer instances of sick leave [1].

Fortunately, simple steps can be taken to mitigate the problem. Below are a small selection of tips and suggestions:

  • Every workspace must be well-ventilated to allow the change and circulation of fresh air. If this is not possible, consider installing an air purification system.
  • The temperature and humidity should be closely monitored to prevent the spread bacteria and spores.
  • Floors and surfaces should be kept clean and dust-free. Use only non-toxic cleaning agents.
  • Machinery should be kept clean and up-to-date. This includes printers and photocopiers, as these give off ozone, an odourless gas known to cause headaches, skin irritation and breathing difficulties.
  • Include plants in your workspace. These help absorb VOCs.

Given the size and ubiquity of airborne particles, there is no sure-fire way of controlling what we breathe in. However, regular monitoring will help identify risk zones and enable the implementation of relief measures.

By monitoring  air quality and other related parameters in-house, not only will businesses save money, it will allow them to develop responsibly and create new metrics to measure change and progress.

[1] ‘Office buildings are key to workers’ health, wellbeing and productivity’, Guardian (24 September 2014)

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Embassy Monitoring

For a little under a week Chai Jing’s Under the Dome eluded censors. The controversial documentary, which explores China’s air pollution crisis, amassed hundreds of millions of views across the country. Speaking directly to a Chinese audience, Chai Jing confronts some uncomfortable truths. She combines shocking imagery, statistical data and the touching story of her own daughter – who was diagnosed with a tumour in utero– to denounce China’s appalling air quality record. Despite praising the video, using it to reaffirm their ‘War on Pollution’, the Chinese government soon banished it from the internet. Chai had successfully reframed the air quality debate from a public health perspective, prompting something of a national awakening. For the Chinese government this brought with it the threat of subversion.

Meanwhile in the UK, #SmogAlert has been dominating Twitter feeds. Last week the country was enveloped in thick, toxic smog, as a cloud of Saharan dust made its way across Europe and mingled with some of our own home-grown emissions. Public health authorities issued warnings urging people to stay indoors, clearly showing, as in Chai Jing’s Under the Dome, that if action is not taken voluntarily, air pollution will change the way we live permanently.

If governments withhold, falsify or manipulate air quality data (as China and the UK have both been accused of doing), citizens’ health and well-being are severely endangered. Providing accurate and timely air quality broadcasts assists the public in making informed and meaningful decisions about where not to go and how best to avoid the health problems associated with air pollution. It also raises awareness and aids mitigation efforts.

A scheme by the US government has succeeded in doing just that. By installing air quality monitors in its embassies and consulates, and making the readings publicly available via Twitter and other means, the US is improving data coverage in underrepresented areas. In turn, this is helping locals make informed lifestyle choices to assuage the threat of air pollution. It also promotes data transparency and creates a pool of analysable data for future modelling.

Although still in its infancy, the scheme has produced some remarkable results. In China, information disparities sparked outrage amongst Chinese environmental officials. The programme was declared illegal, as it contravened official readings; but, even so, it soon prompted the Chinese government to take action. Five years after its inception, 500 PM2.5 stations had been set up in over 70 cities, and billions of dollars were pledged to clean China’s air [1]. The US is piloting similar projects in India and Mongolia.

By promoting the free flow of air quality data, the embassy-monitoring initiative has helped influence policymakers at both local and national levels. Given the enormous data scarcity in much of the world (particularly in Africa), it seems highly appropriate that other countries follow suit to help us overcome this global problem. After all, you cannot control what you do not measure.

[1] ‘How the US Embassy Tweeted to Clear Beijing’s Air’