Sick buildings are leading to sick UAE office workers, doctors say

Dozens of office workers are visiting UAE health clinics every month complaining of headaches, sore throats, itchy eyes, breathing difficulties and skin complaints - all symptoms relating to Sick Building Syndrome.

Dr Trilok Chand is a specialist in respiratory medicine at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
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ABU DHABI // The environment of workplaces could be damaging workers’ health.

Dozens of office workers visit clinics every month, complaining of headaches, sore throats, itchy eyes, breathing difficulties and skin complaints. These symptoms are related to Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).

SBS is attributed to unhealthy or stressful factors – such as poor ventilation and dust, fungal spores and other airborne particles – at workplaces.

Doctors say employers should invest in better ventilation systems and air-quality measures to safeguard the well-being of their staff.

“Sick Building Syndrome is very common in the UAE and other fast-growing countries,” said Dr Trilok Chand, a specialist in respiratory medicine at Burjeel Hospital.

“The reason is often poor ventilation in these buildings, while leaks and other water issues can carry bacterial infections such as fungus.”

He sees about a dozen cases exhibiting respiratory symptoms each month. If a patient has underlying lung problems such as asthma, it worsens their condition.

“Such symptoms are common in my clinic. Patients explain how they feel better once they are outside their work building,” Dr Chand said.

He pointed to air pollution, poor ventilation and the circulation of unclean air as common causes of workplace-related illness. SBS coupled with heavy workloads, long periods on the computer and stressful environments hurt productivity, Dr Chand said.

Dr Lakshmi Chembolli, a dermatologist at Medeor Medical Centre, said SBS was relevant to the UAE.

“We are all behind closed doors and in a ventilated environment all day,” she said. “We do not have fresh ventilation, either at home or at work.

“It is of great importance in the UAE and it requires greater education. We need to be aware of it to observe and diagnose these problems, because they have big symptoms.”

The effects of SBS are all the more harmful because they are less well known.

“People don’t know what the problem is. They cannot relate to something that is invisible and odourless,” Dr Chembolli said.

“We need to have an environmental protection certification for office buildings to certify that the ventilation quality is on a par with accepted standards.

“In America and European countries they have this in place, so we should try to have some guidelines in the UAE as well, because many people spend the majority of their life in an office.

“But SBS is not just related to ventilation. It is also related to the work atmosphere, the stress, the politics – it is a combination of factors.”

Employees also have a part to play, according to Dr Hossameldin Saad, a specialist in pulmonary medicine at Medeor 24x7 Hospital.

“Transmission of infectious respiratory diseases from one person to another can be greatly reduced by hand washing frequently with soap and warm water – one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of illness,” he said.

He said people should use hand sanitisers if soap and water were unavailable.

People who are ill should stay away from work and they should cover their coughs and sneezes with tissues rather than their hands, he said.

Dr Saad added that disinfection, in-depth cleaning, and special air-handling and ventilation systems could curb the transmission of water-droplet pathogens, such as those that cause Legionnaires’ disease.