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Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a poorly understood phenomenon where people have a range of symptoms related to a certain building, most often a workplace, and there is no specific identifiable cause.
The symptoms of SBS may include:
The symptoms of SBS can appear on their own or in combination with each other and they may vary from day to day. Different individuals in the same building may have different symptoms. They usually improve or disappear altogether after leaving the building.
Anyone can be affected by SBS, but office workers in modern buildings without opening windows and with mechanical ventilation or air conditioning are most at risk. This risk increases if they are employed in routine work that involves using display screen equipment.
Women appear to be more likely to develop the symptoms of SBS than men. However, this may be due to more women being employed in offices rather than a higher susceptibility.
SBS seems to be associated with certain types of buildings. Most cases of SBS occur in open-plan offices, although people sometimes develop the symptoms while in other buildings that are occupied by lots of people, such as:
Since the 1970s, researchers have tried to identify what causes SBS. As yet, no single cause has been identified. However, most experts believe that SBS may be the result of a combination of different factors.
Possible risk factors for SBS may include:
If you think that your working environment is making you ill, talk to your colleagues to see whether they are having similar symptoms.
If SBS appears to be a workplace issue, raise it with your health and safety representative. Your employer may have a duty of care to investigate the problem.
Visit your doctor if you have symptoms of SBS that you are particularly concerned about.
Your employers may have to take the steps outlined below to investigate the possible causes of SBS.
Once the steps listed above have been completed and any necessary actions have been taken, employers should carry out another employee survey at a later date to find out whether the symptoms of SBS persist.
If SBS symptoms are still present, a more detailed investigation will be required. This can be carried out by a building services engineer or another similarly qualified consultant.
There can be advantages in employers being pro-active about SBS and asking individual workers informally about any symptoms they may have.
If there are credible reports of symptoms, a survey should be arranged in a way that tries to avoid employee discussion, which can distort the findings.
A simple survey about SBS should cover the frequency of symptoms and whether they improved outside of the building.
A survey like this can mean that issues are dealt with before they become more serious problems.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.