Keoghs Insight


Steve Gowland

Looking to the future: Trends in Disease - Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)



Concerns have been raised from time to time in the media regarding health issues from employees and occupants of buildings who complain of acute health problems which appear to be linked to time spent in a building. A World Health Organisation report as far back as 1984 suggested up to 30% of new and remodelled buildings may be subject to complaints relating to poor air quality.

Causes have been linked to heating, air conditioning, ventilation, moulds, industrial chemicals and poor air filtration. Volatile organic compounds like solvents, printer and photocopier emissions, paper dust and cleaning agents have also been emphasized in the media as potential threats to health.

Potential litigants have complained of symptoms such as eye, nose and skin irritation, non-specific hypersensitivity reactions, psychological factors and disease related conditions including sinusitis, tuberculosis and legionnaires disease.

Employers / Occupiers duties

The basis of British Health and Safety Law relating to employees is the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974, whilst landlords' duties towards tenants lie in the provisions of the Landlord & Tenant Act 1985 and Defective Premises Act 1972.

The Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974 sets out duties employers have towards employees and members of the public and those which employees have to themselves and each other. Alarm bells should start to ring for prudent employers where members of a workforce regularly complain about irritating symptoms and there is poor performance and excessive sick leave.

The various Landlord and Tenant Acts set out landlords’ responsibilities to keep properties in good repair and avoid causing injury or damage as a result of poor building conditions.

It is important to remember that SBS is not a medical diagnosis but a description of a typical complaint experienced only in buildings. The World Health Organisation definition of SBS requires more than 20% of building occupants to complain of health problems which subsequently abate once occupants have left the building.

The term is also a definition of exclusion used where no cause can be associated with the complaints and the term is used as a process of deduction.

Potential claims?

However, in the UK the major area of difficulty claimant’s face in relation to potential claims is that of medical causation and the causative agent/factor being identified on the balance of probabilities. Can the claimant prove a definite causal link between the illness complained of (which needs to be a recognised medical condition) and occupancy of the building where there is knowledge of an issue arising from occupancy?

While such claims have not proven successful in the U.K to date, employers, landlords and insurers need to be aware of the possibility of future claims from tenants and employees. By their very nature such potential claims may involve a number of litigants.

Employers and landlords should pay close attention to any reports of health concerns which may be linked to occupancy. Forewarned is forearmed.