Workplace Safety: Analyzing the True Cost of Mold Remediation
Everyone knows the musty, mildew smell that comes from common mold infestations. It's unpleasant to experience, but when you own the building and when the building houses employees whose safety and health are your responsibility, it can become a much bigger problem.
If you're facing a mold problem in the workplace, you probably have many questions about how serious the problem can be, the regulations that might come into play, and how to deal with the situation.
It can be such a big unknown that you might be tempted to put off confronting the problem. But that is a terrible idea. Although a mold problem in the workplace doesn't need to be a big deal, it's not a problem you can afford to ignore. The longer you wait to address a mold problem, the more expensive it's going to get.
Here's everything you need to know.
Is Mold in an Office an Emergency?
The health problems that can arise from common mold infestations aren't severe enough to be considered an emergency in most cases. Some workers won't even be affected, while others, including those with compromised immune systems, may be vulnerable.
That said, early intervention is key for dealing with a mold problem in the least expensive way possible. If you suspect a mold infestation, you should address it promptly.
How Dangerous Is Mold in an Office Building?
Indoor mold can cause a range of allergy-related symptoms and syndromes, though not everyone is susceptible. People are most likely to be affected if they have weakened immune systems, allergies, sinusitis, asthma, or other lung diseases.
Mold can aggravate existing asthma and other respiratory diseases, but the most common health effects are classically allergic, including runny nose, eye irritation, cough, congestion, sneezing, wheezing, and even skin rashes.
In rare cases, mold allergies can cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP). If very small allergy-inducing particles invade the deepest parts of the lungs, it can cause inflammation. Acute symptoms include chest tightness, difficulty breathing, chills, fever, cough, and muscle aches. Chronic exposure can result in scarring called fibrosis. HP isn't commonly reported as a building-related illness, but it's a potential concern.
What Kinds Of Mold Are Toxic?
Certain types of molds produce metabolic byproducts known as mycotoxins that can cause health problems beyond the allergic symptoms and syndromes discussed above. This is what people mean when they talk about toxic mold.
You can only confirm mycotoxin production through testing. Even if you know your infestation is a species of mold that can produce mycotoxins, that doesn't necessarily mean that your mold is toxic.
Additionally, mycotoxins rarely cause health problems in the context of an indoor infestation, at least while the mold remains undisturbed. The concentration of mold seen in residential or commercial buildings is typically too low for mycotoxin-induced health problems, according to OSHA.
Once you start remediation, you may end up disturbing mold and infested materials enough to create high concentrations of mycotoxins in the air. Therefore, workers involved in mold cleanup need proper personal protective equipment.
What Kinds of Mold Are Dangerous?
In some cases, people use the term "toxic mold" to talk about the level of health risk instead of mycotoxin-producing abilities. In other words, they use "toxic mold" to mean "dangerous."
Some kinds of mold are more likely to induce health problems than others. Aspergillus is a very common type of indoor mold that causes allergies and produces mycotoxins. Cladosporium is a hardy mold that acts as a significant trigger for asthma attacks. Stachybotrys, sometimes called "black mold," is highly toxic and acts as a respiratory irritant. (It's worth noting that color is a terrible identification method for mold, and not all black mold is "black mold").
Those are just a few examples of dangerous types of indoor mold, by no means exhaustive. Any species of indoor mold may induce allergic reactions.
Is Mold an OSHA Violation?
Well, yes and no.
There is no mold-specific OSHA standard. Additionally, no federal agency – not OSHA, NIOSH, the CDC, or the EPA – has created recommendations or limits on specific airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores.
That doesn't mean you can let a rampant mold infestation grow without consequence, but it does mean there are no clear-cut specifications you need to follow.
There are a few avenues that OSHA can use to address a mold problem.
Mold problems can be considered a violation of your industry's sanitation standards. Sanitation standards generally require you to keep workplaces "clean to the extent that the nature of the work allows."
The OSH Act also has a general duty clause that requires employers to keep the workplace "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees." Enforcement of the general duty clause is a little complicated, but it can come into play.
Finally, if your workplace is in California or New Jersey, both jurisdictions have state occupational safety and health regulations for indoor air quality and building-related illness that may apply. New Jersey's standard only applies to public employees, but Cal-OSHA applies to private employers as well.
How Much Does Mold Remediation Cost?
Mold remediation costs are situationally specific. The cost will depend on the square footage of the affected area and the extent of the removal work involved.
Depending on the depth of the infestation and the materials that will need to be replaced, mold remediation can cost anywhere from $2.50 per square foot to ten times that amount.
What Affects the Cost of Commercial Mold Remediation?
Baseline mold remediation services involve removing any mold-infested materials that can't be salvaged and treating the remaining materials with a biocide to kill the mold. HEPA-equipped vacuums are also necessary to safely remove and contain any remaining mold particles. The exact remediation protocol will depend on the materials and the type of mold.
The depth and breadth of the mold damage will play the biggest role in the expense. Is the mold limited to the surface of the wall, or has it spread behind it? Is it just the drywall, or has it spread even further to the studs? Is there insulation that was affected?
The proportions of material that must be treated versus replaced will also affect total costs, as will the quality and type of materials involved. The higher the quality or expense of the unsalvageable materials, the more expensive it will be.
If mold is in a difficult-to-access area, then the project becomes more logistically complicated, and the remediation company may charge more for the same amount of work.
The initial quote a remediation expert will provide is based on how extensive they think the mold problem will be. However, it's not unusual to uncover additional contaminated areas once they get a look inside the walls. This will obviously lead to additional expenses.
Professionals may find a few other things once remediation is underway that can unexpectedly balloon the cost of the project.
One is that the mold has spread extensively enough to compromise the structural integrity. Temporary supports will be needed as mold-contaminated material is removed, followed by calling in a construction company for a permanent solution.
Another surprise expense may be the discovery that asbestos-containing materials have been or need to be disturbed. At that point, work has to halt so that asbestos abatement protocols can be put into place. Since asbestos is hazardous in much smaller quantities than mold and spreads very easily, the containment and removal procedures are far more complicated.
To prevent mold recurrence, you'll also need to eliminate or mitigate the original source of the moisture. This might be a simple leaky pipe, or it might require correcting more extensive plumbing or ventilation problems.
Finally, it's possible for mold spores to travel through the HVAC system, potentially seeding a mold problem to other parts of the building. To prevent further mold growth, remediators will often suggest cleaning or fogging the ductwork. This will be an additional cost, but it may be a wise investment.
How Do You Keep the Cost of Commercial Mold Remediation to a Minimum?
Common mold infestations never get better on their own. The problem can only grow deeper and more extensive over time, increasing the amount of square footage and the extent of the damage and hiking up the cost.
That means that the earlier you begin the commercial mold remediation process, the less costly it will be. Intervening at the first sign of mold is the smartest way to save money, but intervening as soon as you become aware of the problem is key.
What Are the True Costs of Delaying Mold Remediation?
As we said above, commercial mold remediation costs only increase when you delay, but delay too long, and other costs come into play.
Even mild common mold infestations can cause lost productivity and increased absenteeism among your employees. Under the hygiene standard, OSHA inspectors can cite you for any visible mold in the workplace. Mold-related illnesses can trigger worker's compensation claims. Extensive mold problems may cause structural integrity concerns.
If an employee complains of potential mold in the workplace, take the report seriously. Once employers know about a health and safety threat, they're obligated to follow up on the problem. You should also refrain from taking any action that could be seen as retaliation for reporting the mold – OSHA's whistleblower protections and penalties apply.
Severe infestations, including cases involving toxic mold, can trigger expensive civil lawsuits – especially in jurisdictions where it's difficult to prove mold claims for worker's compensation. Since the turn of the millennium, it's become more common for mold claims to successfully win six, seven, or even eight-figure settlements and jury awards. Many mold-related lawsuits have been residential, like landlord negligence, builder negligence, or failure to disclose an existing mold problem before sale, but some cases have involved mold in the workplace.
For example, in 2013, a Florida plaintiff won a six-figure settlement over mold in the Broward County Courthouse, which then triggered 19 other employees to file suit. In 2017, Baxter Healthcare Corp paid out more than $18 million after they failed to heed an employee's report of mold in air filters – over $2 million in civil claims and $16 million in criminal penalties.
Investigations, complaints, and lawsuits can also breed bad PR to hurt your bottom line.
Plus, you'll need to pay for commercial mold remediation on top of the legal costs and PR campaigns. Ignoring a mold problem can only make it increasingly expensive and bad for business.
What's the First Step in Commercial Mold Remediation?
Your first step if you find mold, is to hire a certified mold inspector. A professional can do a visual inspection of the property and advise you on the likely extent of the damage. They may choose to perform testing, if necessary, but sampling can often be skipped.
Mold inspectors are often the same people who perform remediation, but the type of mold remediation certification that is adequate for residential settings may not be sufficient for commercial settings. You should screen for professionals with the right level of mold remediation certification.
OSHA guidance says that isolated areas of mold remediation up to 30 square feet can be performed by regular building maintenance staff that have received proper training on cleanup methods, personal protection and potential health hazards.
For more extensive common mold infestations, OSHA recommends that you engage professional mold remediation help, even if it's just the provide oversight of an internal team. OSHA recommends certain qualifications for mold remediation in an occupational safety and health context, which leans more toward industrial hygiene certification. The EPA also provides resources on mold remediation in commercial buildings.
The bottom line is to act early and seek professional help for any suspected mold problem. As an employer, you have legal responsibilities toward your employees' health, and your mold (and liability) can only grow.
Looking to become a mold inspector? Check out OSHA.com’s Mold Inspector Certification course today. Our convenient, online program will teach you how to properly identify mold infestations, and all of the regulations you need to know. Enroll today to get started!