SafeWork SA

You are here

Go to top of page

Sick building syndrome

Sick building syndrome is a collection of symptoms that a building’s occupants can experience but without any obvious or specific illness or cause.

The syndrome is believed to date back to the energy crisis of the 1970s. In response to the escalating costs of heating and cooling outside air as opposed to recirculated air, office buildings turned away from natural ventilation such as opening windows and air conditioning systems were introduced. However living and working in an environmentally controlled environment also means that we trap pollutants in the air.


The complaints of discomfort and ill health that constitute the syndrome include the following:

Eye symptoms

  • dryness and irritation of the mucous membranes of the eye, often experienced as grittiness, stinging and watering of the eyes.

Respiratory tract symptoms

  • dryness and irritation of the throat, irritation of the nasal mucous membranes, often described as a runny, blocked or stuffy nose
  • sinus pain.

Skin symptoms

  • headaches
  • lethargy or tiredness
  • poor concentration.

Other symptoms

Other general symptoms that have been described include:

  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • tightness in the chest
  • a sensation of difficulty with breathing
  • a sensation of ‘stuffiness’, odours and unusual tastes
  • exacerbation of other conditions, such as asthma.

Investigation of symptoms

Investigation of symptoms thought to be related to the internal environment of buildings requires consideration of a broad range of possible connective factors. It’s important to determine whether there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a problem exists and to also define the level of the problem.

To do so, the frequency and characteristics of the symptoms should be assessed. This is generally expected to give some indication of whether the cause is likely to be a specific and identifiable airborne contaminant or a general deficiency of dilution ventilation.

The assessment of the internal building environment can then be guided towards the more likely cause. A useful step is to take measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations in the workplace air to assess the suitability of the fresh air supply in relation to the human occupancy level.

Additionally, estimates of specific atmospheric contaminants can be undertaken if the inspection suggests the possibility of their presence in extreme concentrations.

If deficiencies are suspected as a result of the inspection findings, a further detailed assessment of air conditioning and ventilation design along with maintenance, cleanliness and function, may be recommended.

This assessment can be done by an occupational hygienist.

Other contributing factors

Even though they may not cause the syndrome, poor management practices and other causes of low morale can affect the way in which symptoms are perceived along with the level of discomfort which people will tolerate without complaint.

The reported incidence of the syndrome can therefore be affected by any factor that impacts on workers' job satisfaction and morale, such as:

  • work interest level
  • work demands, such as work overload and/or underload
  • level of control over their work and environment
  • management response to complaints
  • lighting, noise and vibration levels
  • ergonomic factors
  • decor and other aesthetic factors.