ABC of Safety in the Biological Sciences





Doubts over the existence of SBS have been expressed since the phrase was first used in the late 1970’s. It was in 1976 at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia that hundreds of delegates suddenly became ill, some violently. Twenty-nine subsequently died. Legionnaires’ disease and other building-related illnesses suddenly, were front-page topics.

Legionnaires’, of course, is easy to diagnose, the symptoms are consistent and the organism relatively easy to detect. However, other building-related illnesses are more difficult to determine and to uncover.

The World Health Organisation defines 'Sick Building Syndrome' (SBS) as "a range of non specific symptoms which can affect a significant number of building occupants.

Symptoms include:

  • mental fatigue
  • nasal stuffiness
  • nasal irritation or 'runniness'
  • dry, itchy, 'gritty' or burning eyes
  • dry skin
  • lethargy
  • headaches
  • malaise
  • exacerbation of constitutional disorders, such as asthma
  • eczema or sinusitis
  • throat irritation
These symptoms appear after entering or working in a building for a period of time. In some cases the affects can be almost instantaneous while in others the affects may take some hours to develop.
Consider the last time you enjoyed air travel. In the days following the trip did you experience a ‘runny nose’? How often do you hear travellers say that their holiday was partly spoiled because they developed a cold or a sore throat or something more serious. An airplane is like a miniature modern, sealed building. Sneezed-in, coughed-in air is continually recirculated amongst fellow passengers.

Now take that same concept to your hospital or laboratory. Except add a few more factors like fumes from fixation, processing, staining, copying machines, the truck passing by outside - bacteria and fungi in air conditioning ducts, dust, aerosols from opened specimen containers and those produced by ill patients all circulating in the air conditioning system. Common sense tells us this cocktail is a recipe for disaster.

Specific attention has focussed on a range of potential causative agents such as:

  • microbiological factors (as in Legionnaires disease, Pontiac fever, endotoxins from moulds)

  • immunological factors (as in occupational asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis)

  • ergonomic factors (such as excessive noise and inappropriate lighting)

  • environmental pollution (for example from tobacco smoke)

  • psychological factors (such as conflict)

  • air conditioning factors

There is a view that symptoms are merely indications of stress. For example when suffered by a number of people in the one workplace others may become anxious eventually leading to mass psychogenic illness. Perhaps.

Whatever the cause the existence of such symptoms indicates that conditions in many workplaces are below standard leading to a range of disorders. Various factors have been implicated in SBS and these include ventilation, temperature and air movement, humidity, air borne pollution, biological contamination and work related stress.

What can we do to prevent debilitating symptoms?

Some of the steps, which can be taken to prevent or control SBS, which have been suggested, are:

  • the implementation of non-smoking policies (removes smoking from the workplace or provide smoking-only environments for smokers). This has already occurred in most workplaces across Australia.
  • ensuring that air conditioning is well maintained and within legal requirements (obtain regular checks for viruses, bacteria, humidity, ventilation and temperature). Cooling coils and ducts may need to be treated regularly to kill bacteria and fungi, water tower reservoirs need to checked regularly for foreign material such as bird droppings and dead birds or animals.
  • carpet and upholstery may need to be cleaned or removed.
  • remove bacteria-harbouring dust on a regular basis
  • insulate the workplace to remove as much condensation as possible.
  • reduce humidity rather than raise it. Refrigerated air conditioning is better than evaporative cooling.
  • switch to lowerVOC’s (volatile organic compounds) wherever possible. These are generated by photocopiers, carpets, and furnishings (especially where formaldehyde is used in the process of wood chip production). VOC’s include acetone, benzene, benzaldehyde, toluene, xylene and formaldehyde and can be found in many products.
  • introducing ways of reducing or removing stress from employees (communicate with employees and plan remedial action together).
    • involving personnel in decision making processes.
    • substituting hazardous chemicals with less hazardous substances.
    • confining dangerous substances and chemicals.

Where SBS has been identified it is important to consider: firstly, not closing the workplace because it becomes subsequently difficult to re-open, secondly, limiting the number of consultants brought into the investigation to reduce the possibility of conflicting opinions and finally involving all affected parties in decision making and discussion to alleviate anxiety.

Identifying and treating the causes of SBS will result in higher staff morale and greater productivity from a reduction in sickness, workers compensation and medical costs.



Health Risk Management Unit. Health Risks. South Australian Health Commission. South Australian Government Printer, Adelaide, Australia. 1992


World Health Organisation. Laboratory Biosafety Manual 1983. Geneva. 1983


Do indoor air quality remedied cure sick buildings? A case study. J occ health and safety. 1997:13; 4.


Realty Times. 1999. Internet –


Sick building syndrome. Fact Sheet no 4. Unites States Environmental Protection Authority. 1999


Paul Woelk. Recognizing an outbreak of building sickness. University of Kansas. 1999 –


Steven Ruggerio. Anatomy of a sick building. Progressive Architecture. 1994; 82-86


Marcia Sawnor. Avoiding sick building syndrome –




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