How can I prove my workplace is making me sick?
August 16, 2009 5:40 PM   Subscribe

I think my work place is causing respiratory problems for me. How do I go about proving it?

I started a new job a few months ago. I've had declining health every since. I have a persistent cough and wheezing. Sometimes it's difficult for me to breathe. I have not been able to get rid of it. I've been to my doctor numerous times and am an inhaler, allergy med and prilosec (helps breathing function, go figure!). I would think nothing of this, that maybe I have developed asthma in my 30's but my husband and I have noticed that my cough disappears by Saturday morning and is back in full force after I return to work. The place where I work is in the basement of a medical facility. Our area is carpeted and the carpet is black with dirt (?). I've been told by a few that there are radon and carbon monoxide issues there. My current manager disconnected the carbon monoxide detectors because "they kept beeping after we turned them on". Given that, I think the ventilation is extremely poor. In addition, the place smells funky - there's a pungent odor that hits you when you walk in the door. It's a bitter smell, for lack of a better term.

My question is how do I prove they the area is making me sick? Or find out for sure? I never had any of these problems before working there. And I'm miserable and relying on an inhaler most of the day so I can breathe. Are there lawyers that deal with this? What do I do?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would start looking to OSHA. I know in my workplace there is a prominent OSHA approved poster describing how to contact the people who are paid to investigate these things both openly and anonymously. Getting even a free initial consultation from a lawyer wouldn't hurt and would help direct your future actions.
posted by Science! at 6:04 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may want to look and see if there's a local Occupational Health specialist - there's one at my major research hospital. I'd be careful looking through the yellow pages, as you don't want a $$ mold/environmental testing agency - you want one with physicians, not just a guy who does mold counts. Any ENT or pulmonologist can probably refer you to one, if you already have one of those.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:12 PM on August 16, 2009

A term used to (potentially) describe this is Sick Building Syndrome. The EPA has some contacts listed here, perhaps you could contact them for further advice.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 6:23 PM on August 16, 2009

You can make an complaint to OSHA which will be anonymous. Sometimes, if you have expressed these concerns in the past, people will put two and two together and know it's you, and there could be repercussions.

If the carbon monoxide monitor (what sort of workplace is this?) beeps, that is not good.

Sadly, there could be some conditions which would cause health outcomes WITHOUT exceeding any OSHA levels. For example, there are no mold regulations, at present.

If you are not on record as having these concerns, I would call OSHA and file a complaint. They will either show up or send a letter to your employer, who will need to send a letter back, possibly with documentation, that this concern has been addressed. Then they will contact you again, and let you know what they found. If they DO come out, then they will do appropriate testing and let you know the results.

Another way for you to go is to hire your own industrial hygiene consultant and have them do some air monitoring. Your employer would need to approve; they could bar this person from entering and monitoring.

Without knowing the culture of your place of employment, it's hard to suggest the next step.

If you want to memail me, and feel comfortable with telling me stuff that you have not shared, here, I'll tell you what I think. (These issues are a big part of my job.) Of course it will be worth what you are paying for it, but at least it could give you some ideas.
posted by Danf at 6:30 PM on August 16, 2009

It sounds like you need to go past your immediate manager to at least talk with both Human Resources and Facilities. I'm hoping the sensors that were beeping are for CO2 which is used to measure fresh air levels and not CO sensors which measure build-up of a dangerous gas. Either way, they are intended to be used to fix problems when they go off and depending on their function and purpose for being there disabling them is somewhere from treating the symptom and not the problem to illegal.

From your description it is a high probability that your illness is indeed workplace related. Unfortunately, it is difficult to prove the connection and most spaces are built to code (also known as barely meeting the fine line between legal and illegal) and then there are few real rules about upkeep over time, so your best bets are to either find a sympathetic ear in facilities or HR, or to make a huge stink and be the incredibly annoying squeaky wheel until they fix the problem. Obviously, neither approach is all that endearing to your boss, so tread carefully.
posted by meinvt at 7:20 PM on August 16, 2009

All of the above is good advice. Still, you might be better off quitting.

I went through similar battles with two employers (both medical facilities, working in billing departments) and got nowhere. I heard stuff like this for months: Your work area needs cleaning? The safety officer says her room is even dustier (not true). A co-worker's scent gives you migraines? Unless several employees complain, nothing can be done. Your allergist says you have work-related respiratory problems? Other people don't (also not true). I gave up and sought work elsewhere.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:27 AM on August 17, 2009

I'd call OSHA, perhaps anonymously and I would file a complaint with HR. But I'd also start looking for a new job. It could take months or years to fix this. Meanwhile, you don't want to be sick. It's just not worth it. I had a similar situation years ago. The HR lady looked at me like I was crazy. She said I would have to deal with it or leave. So I left. About 5 years later, they had received enough complaints and fixed the problem. That would have been way too long for me to wait.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 7:53 AM on August 17, 2009

Call OSHA or the comparable worker safety and health organization in your state and make a report. Let OSHA check it out. That's what they are for.

Meanwhile, keep treating your symptoms.
posted by FergieBelle at 8:54 AM on August 17, 2009

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