‘Sick’ building syndrome

Over the last few years, the term ‘sick’ building syndrome has occupied the attention of governments, business owners and employees who have borne the brunt of the impact of what constitutes a problem which deserves serious attention.

Let us face the real story. Buildings and business owners have moved away from the concept of open buildings, where outside air can flow freely inwards and throughout space to a more controlled environment which is made up of segmented spaces, with air-conditioning units spread out in a way where the buildings are cooled and the air quality is maintained.

But like most things, are buildings properly maintained? It might seem a simplistic question, but after public staff walkouts and ongoing upheavals related to unions, then the legitimate question remains if enough is being done to protect workers within buildings across this island?

Protection is more than significant security and posting of guards at doors, but also doing preventative maintenance. The growth of mold and other airborne particles which contribute to respiratory ailments, is serious enough that a regular maintenance plan, which includes the cleaning of air vents and the servicing of air-conditioning units, cannot be left solely until these machines start providing challenges. By that time, the situation would have advanced to the state where respiratory issues will develop and impact workers.

The sad reality is that the impact would not be immediate. Controlled spaces mean that if air is not circulated effectively, then challenges such as the common cold, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, inclusive of dry and irritated skin arise. Other symptoms include but are not limited to, general health issues including odor and taste sensitivity, chest tightness, coughs, headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue. The aforementioned symptoms can also be attributed to building-related illnesses.

Those are the symptoms, but what about the causes? Causes can occur with inadequate ventilation, humidity levels, fluctuations in temperatures, airborne chemical particles, poor lighting and poor standards of cleanliness, which all contribute to the rise of ‘sick’ buildings, but can we truly say that enough is being done about it?

Look at the most recent cases in Barbados. The Judicial Centre, the Combermere School and other buildings faced issues which have impacted staff, and students in some cases. Imagine someone seeing symptoms and simply assuming that it is the common cold or sinuses, but then outside of work, feels fine.

The rise in the prevalence of thyroid issues and its impact on the concurrent rise in heart disease cannot be discounted. The parathyroid gland controls how the body regulates itself and if it is impacted, potentially by a ‘sick’ building, then workers face long-term health issues. Then there is a major problem.

Too often, business owners are slow to deal with the problems. The laid-back approach in this island runs counter to global commitments which govern ‘sick’ buildings. Look at the recent complaints related to the Sanitation Service Authority’s (SSA) proposed headquarters and the Treasury Building. In the case of the former, explain to me how a building which has not been in use for years is now deemed ‘sick’.

It is laughable, but in the case of the former, the Minister cannot escape with just statements related to the building, but what underpinned the assessment? Was the assessment made by the relevant agencies? If so, where is the evidence which led to the conclusion of a ‘sick building’ designation? Have the workers’ representatives been apprised of this conclusion, and what were their views on the matter?

Can the building be cleaned and retrofitted? What is the Minister’s view on the building and does he believe that the SSA’s headquarters should be where it is currently situated? Does the Minister agree that the SSA staff deserves a centralized headquarters or to remain scattered across the island?

Then what is the way forward? Simply cleaning and correcting what caused the problems represent only a part of the issue. There is a need to find ways to ensure that regular maintenance becomes a part of our work culture and not simply a response when business owners are confronted with the effects of workers’ health complaints. The culture of waiting and hoping must change and a level of proactive preventative maintenance must become part of the new culture going forward.

I must deviate for a minute ... so forgive me. What in the name of unholy hypocrisy is ‘forced savings’? Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford was belabored for an 8% cut back in the 1990s. The cry was that mismanagement of the economy had led to a situation which could have been avoided if the right steps were taken.

Former Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, Christopher Sinckler, made a suggestion to temporarily reduce workers’ salaries, even as Government took a self-imposed pay cut... He was deemed to be a failure by the Opposition, which refused to support the idea, since it was argued that the country should have been in a better fiscal position.

2020, enter another fiscal problem which, unlike the others, directly challenges the myth that our productive sectors – the main ones of tourism and international business – are untouchable. Tourism attracted more taxes as Government sought to maximize revenues. Long story short, whereas when civil servants in the two previous cases where championed by opportunistic politicians who made hay on the economic challenges and deemed the governments then and by extension, the line Minister as a failure. The quantum of the proposed cut could be more than what was proposed in two previous cases, yet no outcry of any sustained way. This country is economically sick... it is not well.

Who is taking the blame for the precarious position which Barbados finds itself? Think about it and let me know.

Barbados Advocate

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