Unhealthy Work Environment!

Question:

Hoping you can help me with a question. I work in a very large, old office building, with old heating equipment. Every winter, once the heat is turned on, dust and dirt just pile up on everything in my office. I’ve known for years, but it was recently confirmed that I have severe allergies to dust and dust mites (among others). Like most people with allergies, this includes a runny nose, sinus headaches, sore throat, etc., every day.

Would it be appropriate to ask my boss if I could get an air purifier for my office? I am not sure how to approach this, because many people in my department have similar complaints. I know the building is not going to be updated with new heating any time soon. I’ve tried dusting my office myself, but that just sets off the symptoms. My boss is well aware that I have these allergies. I’d bring in my own, but I just can’t afford it. I have one for my home.

My biggest issue is, I don’t want to be treated differently from my coworkers who have allergies, but the symptoms are getting out of control. I do allergy shots, and take antihistamines daily, but it could take years before I am allergy-free. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Signed,

Allergic


Answer:

Dear Allergic:

You certainly seem to be working in an unhealthy–and unsafe–environment. Your question referred to the appropriateness of asking for an air purifier for your office, but it seems to me that there is a larger issue of working in a place that is unhealthy all over! It would help to have your office less dust-filled, but you still must work with others who have it on their clothes and it would be on papers, in break areas and everywhere else. And, as you point out, you’re not the only one suffering.

I checked with a commercial HVAC contractor, who said the size and age of your building would have a lot to do with cost, but that is nearly always possible to make dust situations better without replacing entire systems. He agreed that putting one solely in your office would only help reduce some of the more visible aspects of the allergens right around the cleaner, but would not lessen your discomfort if you go into other areas.

If you are part of a larger organization, it may be that there is budget to install an office-wide air cleaner. If not, perhaps extra janitorial assistance can be provided to clean up surface dirt, and budget can be used for better filters.

If that isn’t considered by your employer to be an option, it may be that you and your co-workers need to investigate whether or not the situation is so severe as to warrant checking into OSHA requirements in your state or federally. According to the degree of dust, what is contained in the dust and how it is spread, there could be health and safety issues that come under a legal mandate for clean up. That could be handled without it being excessively adversarial with your employer. Surely he would want a healthier environment for those trapped in the building all day–especially since he is likely one of those people breathing the dirty air. And, frankly, having a decent work environment is the cost of doing business. Why should you and your health insurance carrier have to pay to only partially remedy what is caused or at least aggravated by poor HVAC equipment? You and others are human resources, for which your employer is responsible when you are in the building.

The issue of you asking for an air purifier is also difficult. Your employer would be correct in assuming that he couldn’t set a precedent without risking having to buy one for everyone. That might be a good way to convince him to check into better filters for the furnace–compare the cost of an air purifier for everyone with the cost of improved filters, cleaning the ducts and other work that might be required.

A key point is not to assume there is nothing that can be done. In a building where I once worked, about once a month my office would get covered with black dust/soot from the air vents overhead. I notified maintenance every time and was told different reasons for it. Finally I went to the building manager and he called the maintenance people in. They assured me there was nothing that could be done about it, that the black dust was in the vents and the age of the building made it impossible to get them completely clean. The building manager–who was a work friend–told me he had checked on it before and there was simply nothing to be done. So, I cleaned things up, kept important items away from the vents and hoped there was nothing harmful in the black dust.

After I left the assignment a man I knew moved into my office. He actively complained from the very beginning about the black dust. He wiped it all up with a white cloth and put the cloth in a clear bag to show as evidence, then took that to the manager. He contacted everyone at every level possible to complain–taking the dirty cloth with him. I heard about it, shook my head and said, “The building manager was a friend of mine, and he assured me there was nothing that could be done.”

But I’ll be doggone, if they didn’t do something! Within a few weeks the building maintenance people replaced the filter system, found out something had been working wrong and fixed that, then paid to come in and completely clean the man’s office, including shampooing his carpet! I believe there’s a story about a squeaky wheel that fits that situation!

Consider the white cloth method of collecting evidence of the dust in your office, to show that it’s more than a minor issue. Write your name and date on a dust-covered surface and take a photo. Do your own inspection and note where it is worse and better. Get a letter from your doctor about the ill effects of such an environment. Keep a record of medical visits and costs. If you have an HR section, contact them about it. Check into legal requirements, as mentioned. Then, work with your co-workers or on your own to make this a health issue that must be remedied. Perhaps all of those measures will help your employer justify, in his own mind, the expense involved. If not, perhaps they will help him see that he could be facing legal problems if he allows an unhealthy environment to continue.

I hope these thoughts will help you do some problem solving about this potentially very serious problem. Best wishes in dealing with this–not only for your own safety, but also for the safety of others.

Health concerns come first. Thinking and acting WEGO starts there.

Tina Lewis Rowe