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The importance of maintaining air quality integrity

01 October 2017

Sarah Higgs examines the challenges facing the food industry relating to indoor air quality, and suggests a solution. 

Indoor air quality (IAQ) refers to the quality of the air that affects the health and wellbeing of the individuals occupying a particular space. There are two essential aspects related to IAQ – indoor air pollution and human comfort.

It is well reported that outdoor air pollution is harmful to human health, but we generally pay less attention to the potential health impact of indoor air pollution. 

Indoor pollutants – those generated inside a building – tend to be due to activities such as cooking, heating, use of cleaning products or air fresheners. Food production plants are not free from the risk of indoor pollution. In fact, cooking stations and production machines can generate pollutants that are potentially damaging to the lungs and cardiovascular system. 

Working conditions in food production plants can be extremely challenging at all times of the year but in the summertime, challenges are often heightened. High temperatures in factories and warehouses can affect workers and decrease their productivity. In very hot environments, the most serious health and safety concern is heat stroke which can be fatal if medical attention is not available immediately. Heat exhaustion and fainting (syncope) are also types of heat-related illnesses which are not fatal but can interfere with a person's ability to work. 

NASA studies show that human productivity falls 3.6% for every degree above 22°C and 4.7% over 30°C. Other studies carried out by the British Industrial Fatigue Board found that there was a lower output in hot/heavy industries in summer than in winter and an increase in accidents when air temperatures rose above 20°C. 

While there is no legal requirement for environments to be sustained within a temperature threshold, employers recognise that maintaining the temperature at a comfortable level will not only ensure their employees are healthier and happier, but also helps to maximise their productivity – ultimately making them more profitable! 

A good solution to improve indoor air quality can be found in evaporative cooling solutions. Drawing fresh air from the outside, evaporative coolers can offer cleaner air when compared to that from refrigerated air conditioning. 

Traditional air conditioning units, which remain within a building and rely on doors and windows to be kept closed to ensure they work effectively, recirculate the same air over and over. In the case of food production, where pollutants are being created alongside, germs and fumes, this can exacerbate an indoor air pollution problem.  

Evaporative coolers work on the principles of evaporation, where hot outside air is pumped through water-soaked pads. As the air blows through the pads, the water is evaporated and the heat in the air is absorbed, which lowers the air temperature. A fan then pushes the cool air through a ducting system, which brings cool air inside the building. Evaporative coolers only use water and electricity to work, which results in savings in running costs. Doors and windows must be left open (or an extraction system installed) to exhaust indoor air that collects heat, moisture and impurities. 

Outside air often contains dust and pollen: Evaporative coolers filter the incoming air to remove most airborne dust and pollen particles. The wet cooling pads trap the particles, which are washed down into the sump by the circulating water. 

Some production areas can be affected by humidity – particularly warehouses that store perishable food products. Due to their size, often large with high ceilings, humidity can also have a detrimental impact on the health of workers. Evaporative cooling can offer a solution. Seeley’s Breezair system, for example, offers control of the internal humidity levels, setting a certain maximum relative humidity temperature, above which the cooler will start to work in ventilation mode, still providing fresh air from the outside, but without adding any additional moisture. Controlling humidity provides a more healthy, comfortable environment and helps control static electricity as well and other humidity-sensitive processes. 

An evaporative cooling system offered a solution for a manufacturer of chocolate cookies.  High warehouse temperatures were resulting in chocolate chips melting during storage. Giving specific control over humidity levels and temperature, evaporative coolers have helped avoid chocolate chip wastage due to melting. 

Sarah Higgs is sales manager at Seeley International. 

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