Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Air pollution reduces worker productivity

In textile mills in China, workers produced less fabric proportionate to the average air pollution in the preceding 30 days. Using air purifiers may increase worker output by 5% to 15% in many factories.

Executive Summary

Air pollution affects employee productivity in many ways: increased medical problems, healthcare costs, absenteeism, lower physical ability, reduced mental cognition, and impaired decision–making.

A study of textile mill workers in China found lower fabric production when pollution levels rose in the town. Every 10 µg/m3 of increase in PM2.5 lowered number of pieces produced by 1%.

In many towns in developing world, PM2.5 levels are between 50 to 150 µg/m3. So by using air purifiers in the factory, worker productivity can be quickly increased by 5 to 15%.

Read the full article to know how the day’s pollution did not affect productivity but the month’s average pollution did.

Air pollution is known to be bad for people’s health. However, recent studies are showing that it also bad for people’s work productivity.

Air pollution and employees

Pollution affects the employee productivity in multiple ways. First, it affects the person’s overall health, leading to employee absenteeism and loss of working hours. Second, it reduces the physical working capacity. Finally, the new data are emerging that it degrades the mental acuity and decision–making power of employees.

In this article, we will look at the effect of air pollution on the physical ability of office workers.

The medical problems due to air pollution are widely known. Allergies, asthma, COPD, lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke are directly linked to air pollution.

Many people believe that pollution is an outdoor phenomenon. Inside any premises, there is no or little pollution. That is a wrong premise, pun intended.

Indoor pollution could be 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor pollution. Read on this website: Indoor air pollution: an overview.

The study

The researchers were interested to see if air pollution affected office workers in any non–medical ways. They zeroed in on two textile mills in two different provinces of China.

The workers in these mills are paid based on the number of pieces of garments they produce in a shift. So the mills had very accurate data on day–to–day production numbers for each employee.

The scientists also had access to pollution numbers in those towns on those days. The scientists looked at the small particular matter (PM2.5) present in the air. Since these factories did not have any sophisticated air purification system, the indoor PM2.5 pollution levels were similar to those outdoors.

To understand various technical terms, such as PM2.5, read on this website: Air pollution: various acronyms, numbers and units.

The findings

The scientists made two interesting findings:

  1. Daily variations in PM2.5 levels did not affect workers’ productivity on the same day.
  2. On the other hand, prolonged exposure of up to 30 days led to statistically significant drop in employee productivity. For every 10 µg/m3 increase in PM2.5 levels, the daily output of the workers reduced by 1%.


The effect of pollution on physical capacity is not immediate. Many people, by nature, look for an immediate cause and effect.

If the pollution is high, the expectation is you will feel tired and so will work less. While this is logical, the research above shows that air pollution does not affect the physical work ability instantly, or even in a few hours. At least, not in any statistically significant way.

As the average fine particulate matter, PM2.5, in the air went up, over a period of time, the employees ended up making lesser pieces of fabric in each shift. This difference was not just by chance, as the high statistical significance indicated.

The study was not designed to figure out the mechanism by which air pollution lowered the physical ability. But, the high particulate count somehow tired the workers enough that they ended up producing lesser numbers of fabric. Either they needed longer breaks in between, or they were just slower in their work.

These results were published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics in Jan 2019.

To read more on this paper, here is an article on the website of the National University of Singapore: High pollution, low productivity.


Typical PM2.5 levels in many cities in the developing world are 50–150 µg/m3. For example, Mumbai (India) would have an average of 60 µg/m3. New Delhi (India) on the other hand, would have an average PM2.5 of 150 µg/m3.

Note that the PM2.5 value drops significantly during rains, and picks up again after a day or two. Since many cities in India have 3 to 4 months of monsoon, the annual average may be lower. But, for a large part of the year, workers in India face high pollution levels.

In other words, at Mumbai’s PM2.5 levels, the worker physical productivity will be less by 6% while in New Delhi, it would be 15% lower, compared to what the employee can produce in unpolluted air.

Factories spend a lot of time and money, hire consultants, borrow global work–flow ideas, increase employee training, and optimise resources. All in the name of increasing employee productivity.

But, by simply using air purifiers, and getting factory pollution down to pristine levels, can get more bang for buck in most polluted cities. The companies need to rework their CTC (Cost–to–company) per worker model carefully, to account for this.

In the author’s view, using air purifiers to lower indoor pollution down would give approximately 50 times the return on investment over a 5–year period. And, this would be looking at only physical productivity, not considering the costs of medical healthcare and absenteeism.

Actionable tip

Use air purifiers in worker areas to increase physical productivity.
Calculate your per worker CTC model, reducing productivity based on your town’s pollution levels.

Image credit: Brian Odwar from Pixabay

First published on: 3rd April, 2020


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