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Good bedside manner.

Know how to manage indoor air quality hysteria.

Contrary to what some would like to believe, indoor air quality (IAQ) problems are not a flash in the pan or the environmental issue du jour. There is solid evidence that health and comfort complaints related to IAQ are real and will continue to be an issue as long as people live and work in buildings. Successful management of IAQ complaints requires two essential tools: First is recognition of the psychosocial nature of the problems and development of a good bedside manner to deal with them. Second is the creation and implementation of a proactive IAQ plan that will help prevent most of these problems and allow a prompt and effective response when they occur.

lt is important to realize that the vast majority of people who come forward with IAQ complaints truly believe a problem exists. Whether the problem is real or perceived, a matter of health or only discomfort is irrelevant. An individual is entitled to a serious response and the form that response takes will set the tone for how successfully the issue is resolved. Despite the best efforts, it will be impossible to satisfy all the people all the time and there will still always be people who complain. But a good bedside manner can go a long way toward decreasing the number of chronic complainers.

What is good bedside manner? It is having an attitude that is both empathetic and genuine. It means listening to someone with an open mind and treating him or her the way you would like to be treated by a warm and caring physician when you don't feel well. Good bedside manner is a simple, common-sense approach that will cost little and yield many benefits. It will enhance your credibility as a manager, help you resolve legitimate IAQ complaints quickly, and enable you to separate potentially serious health problems from those that simply involve discomfort or are merely perceived. Most importantly, good beside manner will stem the spread of misinformation and prevent an escalation of IAQ reports that could, over time, lead to hysteria.

Unlike other calls management receives from building occupants, IAQ complaints relate to health, a sensitive issue for most people. A proactive IAQ plan will reduce the cost of resolving these complaints by allowing a timely and informative response. Failure to do so may lead to a rift between you and your tenants or employees and even more complaints in the future. Ideally, you should have an IAQ plan in place before problems occur. The plan should include a set procedure for responding to complaints and should be internalized as part of your regular organizational practice. It should prepare you to provide timely action and information when problems present themselves. Reports of your actions should be ongoing and well documented. Let your building occupants know what steps you are taking and that you are working on resolving the problem even if you do not yet have an answer to it.

Not only should the building owner and manager understand and practice these procedures, but also all others who may respond to IAQ complaints, including, if hired, the IAQ consultant. An IAQ consultant can be an asset or liability. If the person has a strong technical background but lacks good interpersonal and communications skills, he or she can exacerbate the IAQ problem.

A good source of information about establishing effective procedures for responding to IAQ complaints, as well as other aspects of proactive building care, is contained in the Building Air Quality Action Plan published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, (NIOSH), Washington, D.C.

Charles W. Cochrane is president of Cochrane Ventilation Inc., an indoor environmental consulting and remediation firm in Wilmington, MA. He serves as a buildings consultant for the Building Air Quality Alliance, Philadelphia.

Proactive Tips

* Respond quickly. A delayed response implies a lack of concern.

* Respond with compassion and understanding. Most people believe they have a legitimate problem whether or not one exists. Take time to listen, evaluate the situation, and explain your actions.

* Keep occupants informed. People are concerned about their health. Rumors start when there is a lack of accurate, credible information.

* Document the report and your actions. Review your documentation with the individual(s) who made the complaint.

* Manage. Take charge of the situation. Patients appreciate a physician who is in control, keeps them informed, and has a good bedside manner. The same is true for the manager of an IAQ complaint.

For More Information

For further guidance regarding IAQ issues, contact the Building Air Quality Alliance (215/387-2181), a nonprofit organization that assists its members by providing a simple, eight-step plan for IAQ effectiveness.
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Title Annotation:management of indoor air quality complaints by tenants
Author:Cochrane, Charles W.
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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