Definition 

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.

SBS symptoms

The symptoms of SBS may include:

  • headaches and dizziness
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • aches and pains
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • poor concentration
  • shortness of breath or chest tightness
  • eye and throat irritation
  • irritated, blocked or running nose
  • skin irritation (skin rashes, dry itchy skin)

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.

Who is affected by SBS?

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 environments

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:

  • schools
  • libraries
  • museums

Risk factors

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:

  • poor ventilation
  • low humidity
  • high temperature or changes in temperature throughout the day
  • airborne particles, such as dust, carpet fibres or fungal spores
  • airborne chemical pollutants, such as those from cleaning materials or furniture, or ozone produced by photocopiers and printers
  • physical factors, such as electrostatic charges
  • poor standards of cleanliness in the working environment
  • poor lighting that causes glare or flicker on visual display units (VDUs)
  • improper use of display screen equipment
  • psychological factors, such as stress or low staff morale

Advice for employees

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 has a duty of care to investigate the problem.

The environmental health services of your local authority or your local Health and Safety Executive (HSE) office may also be able to provide help and advice about how to deal with SBS.

You can visit the Directgov website to find your local authority. To find your local HSE office you can call their helpline number on 0845 345 0055.

Visit your GP if you have symptoms of SBS that you are particularly concerned about.

Employer’s responsibilities

The HSE recommends that employers take the steps outlined below to investigate the possible causes of SBS.

  • Carry out an employee survey to find out whether symptoms are occurring more often than expected. It may also help to identify any obvious causes that can easily be fixed, such as adjusting the office temperature. See below for more information.
  • Check the general cleanliness of the building, including checking that the vacuum cleaners are working properly, that they are regularly emptied and their filters are clean.
  • Check that cleaning materials are being used properly and stored correctly.
  • Check the operation of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. In particular, the system that supplies fresh air should be checked.
  • Check the condition and cleanliness of air filters, humidifiers, de-humidifiers and cooling towers.
  • Check heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system maintenance schedules. Ensure that they are being followed properly.

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.

Employee surveys

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.




Workplace health

There are a number of measures that you can take at work to help prevent the symptoms of sick building syndrome (SBS). For example, you can:

  • open windows to avoid getting too hot
  • organise and prioritise your workload to help prevent stress
  • take regular screen breaks of 5 to 10 minutes (if you use a computer) for every hour that you are sitting at your desk
  • eating healthily and improving your general level of fitness can help you maintain high energy levels and good posture while at work

Read more about workplace health.

Page last reviewed: 05/09/2012

Next review due: 05/09/2014