Protecting Yourself from Air Pollution in the Workplace

Depending on the industry, workers may be at risk from exposure to tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide, allergens, bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that build up indoors. Workers may also be exposed to airborne contaminants on the job such as dusts, welding fumes, gases, solvent vapors and mists.

Minimize sources of indoor air pollution

The best way to guard against harm is to prevent or minimize the sources of indoor air pollution. Employers are responsible for providing safe work conditions, including healthy air. But all employees have a role to play.

  • Make sure your work place is 100 percent tobacco free. Learn more about smokefree air.
  • Store food properly. Dispose of garbage correctly and regularly.
  • Do not bring in products or chemicals that have strong odors or could give off harmful emissions.
  • Clean up water spills and report leaks immediately. 
  • Be aware of the hazards and safe handling procedures for materials on the job. This information must be available to you and usually is provided in Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), employer instructions and container warning labels.
  • Let your supervisor or building maintenance staff know immediately if you suspect a problem with the air in your work space.

Make sure that the air in your work space can circulate freely.

  • Keep air vents open. Do not put papers, furniture or equipment in front of or on top of vents.
  • The building's heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems should be well designed, maintained and operated.

Reduce potential exposure to pollutants.

Some jobs are more likely to expose people to potentially harmful substances than others. The most important ways of reducing potential exposure include the following steps:

  • Eliminate the use of hazardous materials.
  • If it can't be eliminated, substitute a hazardous material with a nontoxic alternative.
  • Enclose the process or containers where a chemical is being used so it never enters the air you breathe.
  • Run exhaust ventilation systems so that they function effectively.
  • Consider changes to administrative practices and housekeeping practices to minimize exposures.
  • Wear appropriate protective equipment. Comprehensive lung health protection may include respirators and other protective gear, such as gloves, aprons, goggles and face shields. If respirators are part of the gear you are given to protect yourself, be sure to wear them. 

If You Suspect Your Workplace Has Unhealthy Air

Let your supervisor and building management know there may be a problem. Follow the usual and proper steps to alert them, as you may need to document the steps you took later.

Tell your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Report the symptoms to your company's health or safety officer. The state or local health department may also need to be informed. Ask the health or safety officer if you should do that yourself.

Work with management as they investigate the problem. The process may take longer than anyone wants because the underlying problems may be difficult to identify.

Your employer is legally responsible for informing you of general and specific hazards connected with your job. Your employer is also responsible for providing you with a safe and healthful workplace. You can help by being alert for unsafe and unhealthful working conditions and reporting any problems.

  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Diagnosing and Solving Problems." IAQ Building Education and Assessment Model (I-BEAM). 2002.

  2. EPA. A Building Occupant's Guide to Indoor Air Quality. 1997.

Page last updated: August 17, 2021

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