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Evaluation of verbal communication problems and indoor environmental quality at a government service office.

Tubbs R; Seitz T
Appl Occup Environ Hyg 2000 Dec; 15(12):869-878
Introduction: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) received a request from an authorized representative of employees at an office of the U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The INS information officers were concerned about verbal communication problems when they interacted with the public in their office. The office configuration made the information officers raise their voices in order to be both heard and understood by the public customers that they served. One INS employee had been seen by a physician and was told that the office conditions led to their voice loss. The employees felt the plexiglass barrier between the information officers and the public, and the ventilation system that conditioned the air in the office, were the contributing factors of the communication difficulties. The employees also expressed concern about a perceived increase in illnesses thought to be related to poor ventilation. Background: The INS office was located on the first floor of a multistory office building. A large portion of the leased space had individual offices or larger multiperson offices. The location also had a holding cell for people detained by the INS. The area of the employees' concern was a public waiting room and reception area where INS information officers met with the public to answer questions about immigration to the United States and to distribute forms needed in the immigration process. Most people that visit the INS do not use English as their first language, and many of them were unable to speak any English at all. In 1996, one of the INS information officers experienced voice problems at work. The employee was seen over many months by an audiologist who believed that ventilation problems, high ambient noise levels, and no voice amplification system were contributing to the patient's vocal symptoms. The audiologist recommended that the employee be given an amplification system to reduce strain on the voice. However, the modifications that were made to the work area did not include such a system. The information officer never completely recovered and eventually retired. Conclusions: The acoustical parameters measured during the NIOSH health hazard evaluation (HHE) showed that communications were difficult in the work area of the information officers. The ambient noise levels in the reception area were above the criteria developed for occupied spaces where communication is needed.(3) In addition to the less than optimal communication space, was the plexiglass barrier and fixed opening which reduced the sound levels of peoples' voices, making it more difficult to hear, particularly in the situation where language was an issue between the speaker and the listener. Based on these findings, the INS was advised to initiate action to see that changes were made in the room characteristics and in the way communicated information was passed between the officers and the public. The IEQ evaluation indicated that more attention needed to be paid to the operation and maintenance of the ventilation system, and that the amount of outdoor air delivered to the waiting area should be increased. It was not clear from this limited evaluation to what extent recirculation of air from the waiting area contributed to the elevated CO2 concentrations in other office areas. It is generally not a good practice to completely turn off the ventilation system in an area, even if there is acceptable thermal comfort. This practice can lead to an increase of contaminants and odors, and can result in air stagnation. This is particularly important in areas where there is a high occupant density, such as in the customer waiting room and reception area. Informal discussions with employees revealed that thermostats were often adjusted or turned off completely, primarily because they were too cold. This suggests that temperature set points should be adjusted. The temperature and humidity levels that NIOSH investigators measured confirmed that the existing set points were not appropriate. ASHRAE guidelines can be used to determine the appropriate temperature set points that will result in minimal occupant dissatisfaction.(20,21) The low humidity levels in this area of the country would need to be considered in selecting appropriate temperature set points for different seasons.
Environmental factors; Office workers; Communications; Noise; Indoor environmental quality; Relative humidity
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Journal Article
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NIOSH Division
Source Name
Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene
Page last reviewed: April 9, 2021
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division