The HVAC Factor: Keeping Cool, Safely

By Megan Browning
From the April 2014 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

It may seem like a lot of hot air, but incorporating air movement into a facility provides numerous benefits that can easily be overlooked. The Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, has found temperature and air quality to affect productivity directly. And the narrow temperature and comfort range at which people are most productive is largely dependent on adequate ventilation and air circulation. Paired with occupant comfort is the issue of employee safety in workplace settings.

Keeping Cool, Safely
In a facility where doors are often open, cooling and ventilation strategies might
include using high volume, low speed fans to move air effectively. (Photo: Big Ass Solutions)

When spaces suffer from inadequate air movement, working conditions can become more than just uncomfortable—they can become dangerous. Heat stress occurs by overexerting oneself in excessive heat or by merely enduring excessive temperatures for too long. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards indicate temperatures of 100.4°F and above are dangerous for workers, while air temperatures that exceed 95°F significantly increase the heat load on the body. Similarly, studies have shown worker productivity to decrease steadily as temperatures rise above 77°F.

Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”

The courts have interpreted OSHA’s general duty clause to mean that an employer has a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that either the employer or industry recognizes as hazardous and that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate the hazard. This includes heat related hazards that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm.

Although often overlooked as a serious ailment, heat stress can result in potentially fatal heat strokes, as well as heat rash, heat exhaustion, and heat cramps. Hot working environments pose threats not only to employee health, but also to the success of an organization. Indoor air quality is affected by a combination of several factors, including humidity and mold buildup, variable climates, toxins released from construction materials, and a facility’s age. Many new facilities built with energy efficiency in mind are so airtight that ventilation with outdoor air is significantly reduced, trapping pollutants inside. Unavoidable in most construction projects are the numerous chemicals found in building products, many of which have never been tested for their potential health impacts.1 Introducing air movement to an indoor environment assists ventilation systems in filtering the air and curtails unwanted aromas and excessive heat.

A case in point: In Houston, TX, the Environmental Service Center (ESC) Household Hazardous Waste drop-off facility was plagued with heat, humidity, and the residual vapors of toxic chemicals. Employees there endured the double whammy of exhaust fumes from cars driving into the warehouse as well as vapors from the chemicals and pesticides brought in by city residents for disposal. The facility manager there, Roger Jones, knew something had to be done to ensure employees worked in safe, productive conditions. With 13,000 square feet of space, the ESC facility included wide open north/south bay doors and 27′ ceilings, which did little to improve the previous conditions.

“Even with the bay doors open, we didn’t have much air circulation,” says Jones. “Many days there was no air movement at all.” Jones had attempted using various fans in the facility but nothing delivered the level of air movement necessary to combat the heat and fumes. Unlike traditional floor and ceiling fans, two high volume, low speed (HVLS) fans now provide large volumes of quiet, non-disruptive air movement at the facility. Jones decided to bring in two mobile fans, each measuring 8′ in diameter. Suitable for indoor or outdoor use, these fans send cooling breezes up to 140′. Variable speed adjustments provide flexibility and control, allowing users to direct air movement where it is needed most. The airfoils of these fans are designed to move large volumes of air at slower speeds using a one horsepower motor. They also feature OSHA compliant rigid screen construction and the ability to rotate 360° to provide cooling in any direction.

Keeping Cool, Safely

Beyond the fans solving the issue of heat and humidity, Jones relied on their ability to diminish the vapors present in the air. Household hazardous waste accepted at the facility includes antifreeze, fuel, oil, paint, pesticides, and cleaning products. Combine that with the stagnant air and vehicle exhaust fumes, and the air was “a hazard in itself,” says Jones. “These fans make a big difference. We deal with not only the ambient temperature but also the odors from all those chemicals we handle. The fans move those odors out of our breathing zone.”

Browning is a public relations associate at Lexington, KY based Big Ass Solutions, a designer and manufacturer of quality fans and lights with a focus on comfort and efficiency.

1 Belew, Rachel R. “Improving the Indoor Air Quality of Schools,” The Construction Specifier, Canada, Nov 2010, pp. 101. (Source: