YANourD, Workplace Air Quality (?) Edition
December 14, 2017 12:36 AM   Subscribe

Two weeks ago my boss started feeling nauseous while in our shared office, but the symptoms would let up when she went outside. Two days ago, a number of people (me included) started feeling weird, and today it got really bad. Someone is coming in to test the air tomorrow, ops is putting workstations for some of us in a different room, and HR told me to go to Urgent Care if I start feeling sick again. What's going on?

For the first two weeks my boss was feeling nauseous while in our shared office, I was fine. She would mitigate her symptoms by working outside or working from home. An air purifier helped, but only somewhat. I didn't smell anything, didn't feel sick, and neither did the other artist in our room. On Monday, a HVAC tech came in to check our system. He changed a part that had caused a particular fan to stop working.

Monday afternoon, I was having trouble concentrating, feeling slightly flushed and feverish. I left work early and felt fine by the time I got home. I thought it might be psychosomatic, related to something I ate, or maybe being exposed to a virus over the weekend.

Tuesday, a number of the people in the office next to ours (which holds about 14) were also having symptoms like dry eyes and difficulty concentrating. I didn't talk to them directly, just heard things second-hand from my boss. Other than being unusually cold/clammy, my symptoms seemed less acute than on Monday (but I was very distracted by Alabama).

Today (Wednesday), over time, I felt much worse at work. Sweaty hands, nausea (but not like a hangover or the flu), feeling flushed, and a distinctly bad (soapy?) taste in my mouth. I told my boss the full list of what I was experiencing, and she confirmed it matched what she has felt for the past couple weeks, including details she hadn't mentioned before. She went to urgent care last week, but they basically took some blood and just shrugged. I talked to HR in person, they told me to go to Urgent Care (but the day was almost over and I had a deadline), and started the process of finding somewhere else to set up my computer until this is resolved.

If, even with only spending a little time in my usual office (certain equipment I use can't be moved), I still feel awful on Thursday, I will go to Urgent Care. It feels like a waste of time considering how quickly I feel better once I'm out of the office, but I'm frustrated and don't know of any other options, so I will go.

Does any of this sound familiar? About half the people in my section of the building have been feeling these symptoms in the past couple days. I want to feel more prepared to talk to HR, a doctor, the air quality specialist, etc in the next couple days.

I am an hourly employee in CA and only have 1 sick day available right now, which I very much don't want to use when I only feel ill in the office. I don't have any known allergies.
posted by itesser to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Nausea and dizziness (difficulty concentrating) sound like carbon monoxide poisoning to me. You can get a battery operated CO detector (get one for your house and just bring it in to the office for a test) for not much money at any big box store. It would be able to give you a definitive positive answer if it is CO.
posted by koolkat at 1:22 AM on December 14, 2017 [17 favorites]

Does your building have a shared roof space where air can move from other parts of the building or facility? If so have there been any recent tenancy changes which could be venting into the roof/ceiling space?
posted by unearthed at 1:47 AM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Call OSHA. It sounds like you've got one of the reasons that they inspect/intervene.
posted by clawsoon at 3:49 AM on December 14, 2017 [10 favorites]

And be sure to get tested for legionella, although it doesn't sound likely since symptoms abate off-site. You should all be given additional sick days, at the very least.
posted by mareli at 5:39 AM on December 14, 2017

That sounds almost exactly what low level carbon monoxide poisoning like. Could be some sort of gas leak, also. Doesn't seem likely to be a communicable disease since symptoms abate in other locations.

If there's natural gas service to the building, give the supplier a call. Gas leaks can cause similar symptoms and sometimes you can't smell the mercaptan. Their scanning device should also pick up on CO.
posted by wierdo at 6:23 AM on December 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

I would not be willing to spend time in a place that makes people sick. If it's CO, and the source is unknown, it may be getting worse.
posted by theora55 at 7:47 AM on December 14, 2017

Oh wow. Now that you mention it, carbon monoxide sounds 100% right.

There is toxic stuff that goes on in the building, and there have been issues worth some of the spray booths recently, but this sounds more like basic HVAC than casting chemicals.

I'm taking in one of my home detectors, and feel both better and worse about going to the office.
posted by itesser at 8:06 AM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I lied, not going in today. The more I think about how long it was unaddressed, the angrier I get.
posted by itesser at 8:30 AM on December 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would still drop it off so your coworkers could be helped by this. Or at least let them know that CO is a possibility. You showing up and then leaving immediately might send a stronger message.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:53 AM on December 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

someone else took in a CO detector but it didn't go off. Air quality person postponed till tomorrow. Considering calling OSHA.
posted by itesser at 2:30 PM on December 14, 2017

You need one that displays the actual CO reading, not just a basic alarm. Low levels of CO in the air for a long period of time build up in your blood and cause symptoms after repeated exposure. The alarms are designed to alert you to levels that are lethal within a few hours so that you don't die in your sleep. Hopefully the air quality expert has a good meter, and more importantly good sense.

That said, it certainly could be one of any number of other things. CO is just the most common. If your company deals with hazardous materials, you really should contact OSHA or other relevant regulatory authorities dealing with whatever chemicals are used at your facility. If they're being this lackadaisical when employees are obviously becoming ill I can only imagine how poorly they would respond to a release that wasn't causing obvious problems. That's the sort of attitude that leads to disaster when dealing with toxic/flammable/dangerous substances. Unfortunately, many common substances fall in that category and get dismissed as a source of possible danger.
posted by wierdo at 5:37 PM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing call OSHA. I would not be above calling the gas company as well, and even the local FD to ask for the building to be walked/inspected (commercial buildings usually need a FD certificate in order to be occupied).

Most likely there is an external air intake that is poorly situated right next to an external vent. OSHA and other involvement will mean that the company or building owner won't dick around for the next three to six months saying that they don't have money in the budget to reconfigure the HVAC system.

I'm a former property manager, I can attest that sometimes building owners need to be pushed to remember that there are real people in the building with real health concerns.
posted by vignettist at 10:21 PM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Update, after being pinged by a concerned MeFite:

There has been a mix of the affected people working in other buildings and working from home in the past couple weeks. A few of us went to Urgent Care under workman's comp, and the doctor there said "It's allergies or mass hysteria", and refered us to an allergist.

Right after I posted my question, an air quality company was hired and their report came back "nothing unusual". I don't have access to the actual results, but my manager (also affected) does. They would probably let me read it if I really pushed to, but I haven't yet.

A cleaning company was hired to do a "full clean" of the affected areas during our winter break (last week), but they only cleaned the interior of the room and didn't even do a "thorough" job (ie: ceiling still had dust on it built up around the AC vent).

On Tuesday (two days ago), my manager brought in a higher quality air purifier and taped a garbage bag over our AC vent. (We hadn't run the unit for a couple weeks, but an open duct is an open duct). Yesterday, she worked in the office without any symptoms. Today, IT moved my computer from the annex back to the main building. All three of us are back in our original office without symptoms.

So things are patched, but not resolved. The underlying cause has not been discovered, nor have my symptoms been diagnosed to my satisfaction.

If you have any additional thoughts about the situation, or questions I could be asking about the report, I'd be happy to listen! Thanks again.
posted by itesser at 5:07 PM on January 4, 2018

WHAT. THE ACTUAL FUCK. IS "MASS HYSTERIA"? Were you all on your period at the same time in order to be experiencing this coordinated female overreaction to the inability to BREATHE while working outside the home? That is some seriously incompetent bullshit.

I'm too angry to even give a coherent answer. I'll check back in. In the meantime, PLEASE call OSHA.
posted by vignettist at 10:38 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Email from HR today:

We wanted to take a moment to update the team on the status of the air issues that have been reported by [Departments]. HR has been working with Operations to do everything that we possibly can to remediate these issues and give everyone a comfortable working environment. So far, the steps taken include cleaning the A/C unit, air quality and carbon monoxide tests, set up of alternative workstations for those affected, set up of air purifiers in affected areas, a deep cleaning of workspaces, desktops and floors, covered ducts, and performed a duct cleaning.

Our efforts up to this point have not unveiled a cause or issue with the air, and the only definitive information that we have received is that the symptoms that people are suffering from are similar to those associated with asthma and allergies. We are committed to partnering with the affected people to try to figure this out and make sure that our employees are comfortable in the meantime.

We will be reaching out to and working with each person affected by this to find a solution that works for them, their team, and their internal clients. Our intention is to set up everyone for success, and we apologize for any disruption to your workflow during this time. If you have any other questions, please feel free to reach out, and know that we are working diligently to find a solution that works for everyone. If you continue to experience symptoms, please reach out to your department leadership and cc HR on the email.
posted by itesser at 5:56 PM on January 19, 2018

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