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Employees Breathing Easier in Green Buildings

In March 2010, the Highlandtown Healthy Living Center moved from an old building with mold issues and poor indoor air quality to one receiving the U.S. Green Building Council's top rating. Since then, worker health and productivity have climbed.

November 15, 2011
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage, Total Quality Management, Organizational Culture, Retention, Policies and Procedures
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Highlandtown Healthy Living Center's kitchen in its 'green' facility.

Since moving from an aging, sick building to a state-of-the-art green facility, the Highlandtown Healthy Living Center has become the picture of health for employees and patients of the not-for-profit Baltimore Medical System. Workers' compensation claims have plummeted and patient and staff satisfaction soared during the past 20 months.

"We decided to put our money where our mouth was" by building a healthy medical center in the most unhealthy neighborhood of Baltimore, says Katie Callan, vice president of human resources at the system, which operates six regional outpatient medical facilities.

In March 2010, the Highlandtown Healthy Living Center moved from an old building with mold issues and poor indoor air quality to one receiving the U.S. Green Building Council's highest rating—a platinum award under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program.

The new building features a highly efficient heating and air-conditioning system; ample natural light; the use of nontoxic cleaning products; two gardens; and other features to reduce energy costs and lessen the environmental impact.

Not surprisingly, worker health and productivity have climbed, echoing a number of studies and anecdotal evidence collected since green building initiatives took root in the 1990s.

A study in 2009 by Michigan State University researchers of two businesses in Lansing, Michigan, found employees who suffered from asthma, respiratory allergies, depression or stress-related conditions showed small improvements in the number of hours worked each year after moving to green buildings. But the reported increase in productivity shot up by almost 40 hours per person per year.

At the Highlandtown Healthy Living Center, which provides basic outpatient medical care to needy residents, Callan would receive dozens of workers' compensation claims some years from employees whose respiratory problems kicked in once they arrived at work. An environmental engineer found high levels of Aspergillus and Penicillium mold.

Baltimore Medical System saw increased absenteeism and workers' compensation premiums as well as sagging productivity and morale. Employees thought "the company doesn't care about us," Callan says. At the new facility, there have been two workers' compensation claims—from employees who accidentally stuck themselves with needles.

Medical assistant Teresita Nixon, who has asthma, has worked for the medical center for eight years. In the old facility she would often come down with colds, aggravated by asthma, and call in sick. Since the move she uses her inhaler less frequently because of the improved air quality.

"I cough more when I go home to my own house," she says.

She's also found the daylight streaming into the new building makes her more energetic. "It's like when you get up in the morning. You want to get up and do something."

That correlates with the Michigan State study of the Christman Co. construction company headquarters and the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union headquarters, which both relocated to green buildings. The study examined the responses of 175 employees about the effects of their workplaces before and after their moves.

The study, published last year in the American Journal of Public Health, states poor indoor air quality, temperature extremes and lack of ventilation can affect those who suffer from asthma and respiratory allergies, while those who struggle with depression and stress-related conditions can be influenced by poor lighting, acoustics and ergonomic design. Those employees tend to be absent more and less productive than other workers.

The employees' reports showed that improving the environment added about two extra work hours per year for each employee suffering from allergies, asthma, depression or stress. About 15 percent of employees reported having asthma and another 15 percent reported suffering from depression. Almost 30 percent said they had respiratory allergies, and one-third said they suffered from stress-related conditions.

Gavin Gardi, sustainable programs manager for the Christman Co., says the company decided to renovate a 1928 office building into its platinum LEED-certified headquarters.

Employees gave their input on the renovations through focus groups and questionnaires. They wanted to control the temperature and lighting in their workspaces and have glass walls around offices for "a feeling of being part of a larger whole," Gardi says.

Reusing the building fits the model of sustainability, and upgrades were made throughout to qualify for LEED certification. For example, the new heating and air-conditioning system distributes air from under the floor, and the air return is at the ceiling. That means air polluted by people breathing and sneezing doesn't blow back on them, but flows upward, Gardi says.

Angela Bailey, vice president of marketing and communications at Christman, says her allergies have dissipated since moving to the new headquarters.

"The building feels like a healthy building," Gardi says. "It feels bright and cheery and healthy."

The $12 million renovation to LEED standards was no more expensive than renovating a comparable non-"green" building, Gardi says.

It was a different story for Baltimore Medical System because Highlandtown Healthy Living Center was the first medical facility of its kind to win LEED certification. Unlike a hospital or office building, there were no templates in place. Having to do everything from scratch added about 25 percent to the cost, driving the price up to $11 million, says Emma Jones, director of strategic operations for the medical system. Federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act covered $1.2 million of the cost of the center, which serves about 10,000 patients each year.

While the improvements to the quality of the building were invaluable, and Baltimore Medical System would build to green standards again, Jones says she's not sure the organization would seek LEED certification, since every piece of material used had to be documented and the paperwork was overwhelming. "It almost makes it cost prohibitive."

On the other hand, workers' compensation claims have plunged and staff turnover is on track to fall from 18 percent last year to 9 percent this year, Callan says. Building to LEED standards "is worth it in terms of the health of our patients and our staff."

Susan Ladika is freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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