Lighting and health


A new three-part series, “The Secret Life of Buildings” started on Channel 4 on Monday this week. Presented by Architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff, it examines how architecture affects us at home, work and play,

One of the main themes of the first programme was how the design of buildings can affect the health and well-being of their occupants. It explored the impact of building design factors, including lighting and space and even aesthetic aspects.

This idea that buildings can affect health really isn’t new; most occupational hygienists probably have had to carry out investigations of “sick buildings ”  where the occupants have reported feeling unwell with the problems attributed to the environment inside the building where they work. In my experience the workers normally complain that “there must be something in the air” (i.e. chemical pollutants), but, in many cases, the underlying problem is one or more other factors, including physical agents such as the thermal environment and lighting conditions.

From an occupational hygiene perspective, the discussion of lighting during the programme was of particular interest. Although it’s a fringe topic for most hygienists (it isn’t included in the International Modules that will be adopted in the UK next year), we can sometimes be asked to undertake lighting surveys – and may decide to evaluate lighting levels and conditions as part of a “sick building” investigation. However, lighting levels (the illuminance) is typically assessed from a task performance or safety perspective.

Poor lighting in the workplace can cause physiological problems, including eyestrain, migraines and headaches. However, the programme considered the neurological and psychological aspects of lighting level and quality, such as effects on mood, alertness, comfort, energy levels and cognitive performance, which are much more difficult to assess.

One of the experts who appeared on the programme was Russell Foster, Chair of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University. He has carried out work on the impact of lighting on human circadian rhythm and, on his website, points out that

“In mammals, including man, light provides the critical input to the circadian system, synchronising the body clock to prevailing conditions.”

Disruption of circadian rhythm caused by poor lighting can affect sleep patterns and lead to a range of neurological and psychological changes. According to Professor Foster, these problems can be minimised by good lighting design.

I think that there is a general consensus that people like to work in bright spaces, preferably with natural light (supplemented with artificial light where necessary). This is recognised, to some extent, in UK health and Safety legislation – Regulation 6 the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 requires that

Every workplace shall have suitable and sufficient lighting

and that this

shall, so far as is reasonably practicable, be by natural light”.

Most occupational hygienists are probably much more used to addressing problems where there is a tangible cause and concrete outcome. For example, conditions like irritation and asthma due to exposure to chemicals and physiological effects caused by physical agents such as noise and heat. It’s much more difficult to relate to the neurological and psychological problems identified in the programme that are associated with poor quality lighting.

Occupational hygiene is about the prevention of ill health associated with work. In a changing workplace, where problems due the worker’s “state of mind” and psychological stresses are becoming more important, if the profession is to survive it needs to adapt and embrace new skills and competencies. Perhaps we need to give more emphasis to issues such as those aspects of lighting at work raised in the programme. I’m not sure to what extent we need to think about building aesthetics, though!

Next week, the second programme in the series is devoted to buildings where people work. According to the preview on the Channel 4 website

“Tom Dyckhoff makes some revelatory and shocking discoveries about how the buildings in which we spend our working life can physically change our brain,”

It should make interesting viewing.

Published by ms6282

I'm a consultant and trainer specialising in the recognition, evaluation and control of health hazards in the workplace. I'm based in the North West of England, but am willing to travel (almost) anywhere

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