Office painting fumes
March 13, 2006 6:13 PM   Subscribe

My boss has decided to repaint the interior of our office building, which is nice. However, she is having it done during office hours - I'm 10 weeks pregnant, we have someone with allergies and someone with asthma. Is this odd? Isn't this usually done outside of office hours so we don't have to sniff paint fumes for 8 hours?

If so, what recourse do we have? Can we report her to some state agency or something for unsafe working conditions? Even if I wasn't pregnant, I don't think it's reasonable to have to smell fumes all day for a week. If it matters, the type of work we do has us all just sitting at computers all day. The windows don't open in any of the rooms, but she's going to keep the front door open (it's 29 outside today).
posted by marajade to Work & Money (28 answers total)
I've had the same situation, as I'm asthmatic.

In one case, my desk was moved to another floor for the duration of the moving (it was a large painting project). In another case, I took the days off when they were painting as sick days.

However, not all asthmatics are allergic to paint fumes, nasty as they are, and I'm sure the allergic and asthmatic are making plans to minimize their exposure to fumes, if they know they'll be sensitive to them. If you're concerned about the fumes, I'd approach your HR department first.
posted by spinifex23 at 6:21 PM on March 13, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry, should have given a couple more pieces of info. The office isn't big enough for anyone to move anywhere "out of range", we are just a 10 person business so no HR. If everyone who was bothered took sick leave, the business would probably have to shut down.
posted by marajade at 6:25 PM on March 13, 2006

Call OSHA.
posted by clh at 6:26 PM on March 13, 2006

Assuming you are in the US

Start here , and go from there. While there is little risk of lead poisoning, you need fresh air. Go here and find your local OSHA office. They were (when I worked with them, a long time ago) very helpful with things like this, and can quote specific lines from the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) very quickly.

Don't wait.
posted by bh at 6:26 PM on March 13, 2006

Marajade - on preview, this isn't your problem. Sorry to be so harsh, but have you taken this to your boss yet?

From the little I've read, your office isn't meeting OSHA guidelines. One open door isn't going to do it. Unfortunately, the business is small enough that it might not matter (is it still 20 employees? Is that just for the disabled these days?). I'm way out of date on the CFR, please don't take this as any sort of legal advice. Can the more judiciously informed among you elaborate?

You mention that the windows don't open. Have you called the local fire marshall?
posted by bh at 6:31 PM on March 13, 2006

What kind of paint are they using? The last time I did painting the paint was supposed to be totally safe. It smelled vaguely-food like, not at all un-pleasant.
posted by delmoi at 6:37 PM on March 13, 2006

Disregard everything said above about calling the fire marshall and OSHA. Why don't you talk to your boss about it? Ask nicely if it could be arranged for the painting to be done outside of working hours.
If she's unaccommodating at first (and I don't see why she would be), she will see sense when you explain how many of her workers have a problem with it (3 or more out of 10).
posted by Count Ziggurat at 6:53 PM on March 13, 2006

Response by poster: Multiple people have talked to her, and she doesn't particularly care, and it's too inconvenient to her to have it done outside of office hours. I don't know precisely what she told the other people with issues, but she told me that she painted while she was pregnant and she was fine. That's why my questions was geared towards outside help to possibly force the issue.

Do all windows actually have to open because of fire codes? It's just a two story building, with only big picture windows.
posted by marajade at 7:07 PM on March 13, 2006

Is it possible to arrange to work from home throughout the painting?
posted by necessitas at 7:33 PM on March 13, 2006

it's too inconvenient to her to have it done outside of office hours

Possibly much more expensive, too, although the effect on productivity during working hours might make up for that. Perhaps talking to your ob/gyn would be a smart next step, either to confirm there's no danger (other than the 'yech' factor), or to get a medical excuse to be out of such a poorly ventilated space during a paint job.
posted by mediareport at 7:39 PM on March 13, 2006

Get a doctors note and work from home. Don't take sick time!
posted by fshgrl at 8:20 PM on March 13, 2006

The best thing you can do is think about what a lucky life you lead, you could have to work in the factory that made that paint and breathe those fumes every day.
posted by 445supermag at 8:21 PM on March 13, 2006

If all else fails, make her buy some large Vornado fans to circulate air. It's a stupid name, but a very strong fan.
posted by stavrogin at 8:43 PM on March 13, 2006

They are doing some of this at my work, too, and even though there are plastic curtains up around the work areas, you can smell paint.

I don't know if ordinary latex paint is really that hazardous. OSHA could probably tell you that, along with what your options are.

But it's tricky. I hear, for example, that my work building is full of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer. But all they seem required to do is put up a plaque notifying me so.
posted by scarabic at 9:12 PM on March 13, 2006

Ask your boss to use Zero VOC paint. They use these in hospitals and nursing homes to paint rooms while the patients are in them. My wife and I just had our house gut rehabbed, and had the interior painted with a combination of low- and no-VOC paints. We weren't living there, but we visited while the painting was happening, and it was not unpleasant.

There will be a small, not a large, price premium for buying these paints.

If your boss won't do that and won't do anything else, take a few days off. Your pregnant. The rest of your life and the entirety of your child's life aren't worth compromising on this.
posted by alms at 9:30 PM on March 13, 2006

If forcing the issue doesn't work, maybe bringing in a small fan for your desk and one of the white masks you'd use while painting would help? Or even better, setting up a couple of those larger rotating fans throughout the office might ease the odor a little. If your boss has no option but to paint during the day, she can at least see to your basic needs.
posted by lhall at 9:31 PM on March 13, 2006

Well, sounds like the OSHA should hear about it, and if it comes to it the Fire Marshall for the windows. Do it anonymously. After all, other people confronted this dumb bit**.
posted by Dean Keaton at 9:32 PM on March 13, 2006

It would be kind of fun to come to work in a bright yellow hazmat suit. And then submit it as an expense. At the very least, you need to find out what kind of paint fumes this moron is going to inflict on everyone.

1) Make sure they aren't scraping off--or worse, sanding away--any existing lead paint. Major, major problem for kids/pregnant women.

2) This OSHA page lists the dangerous types of paint.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 10:03 PM on March 13, 2006

If we're talking about emulsion paint (or whatever it may be called where you are) on the walls then I'd suggest the problem is negligable - the paint dries quickly and is normally very low odour with even lower odour options available if you annoy the buyer enough.

Glosswork (for woodwork, again, I guess names may vary) have again got a lot better if you can ask someone to buy a water based gloss paint rather than an oil based one. They stil smell, but nothing like as badly as they did ten years ago.

Disclaimer, I'm in the UK and based this on UK paint. Wherever you are, they may still make paint with solvents mixed with lead and garlic for all I know.
posted by twine42 at 11:27 PM on March 13, 2006

at my last job at a web-hosting company where i worked as tech support when they needed painting done they just had a few techs and i do all the work...

and i'm an asthmatic...

looking back on it there were numerous times where we the out-of-shape nerdy tech staff were asked to do all sorts of physical labor including a number of things that could have been life threatening involving elevators and equipment that was far too heavy...

i and a number of other guys were in the hospital on workman's comp claims a number of times...

you know, i think it wasn't a very good company...

so learn from my mistakes... call osha...
posted by MonkNoiz at 11:42 PM on March 13, 2006

How much time are you plaining to take off for FMLA? If you don't get anywhere with OSHA or don't want to go that route your doctor would most likely be willing to fill out the federal FMLA form saying that due to pregnancy you shouldn't be in the office while the painting was going on. You could do an interrupted FMLA and take days now then go back and work until you take the rest of the FMLA around your child's birth. Because you'd have a doctor's form for the time taken off during painting you'd still be eligible for the full 6/8 weeks of FMLA using sick leave and the remaining time left in you FMLA bucket up to 12 full working weeks. (disclaimer: not a HR person but I'm the leave supervisor in my office and that is how it could work based on the state of NC's intp of federal FMLA policy)
posted by smash at 3:57 AM on March 14, 2006

Someone will correct me as needed, but I believe the law only guarantees you FMLA if you work in a company of fifty or more employees and if you do work which someone else can in principle take over. So you may be at the mercy of your employer's policies in terms of maternity leave. That said, some employers offer better leave policies than the law requires, so this may not matter.

Your employer is taking a pretty significant risk with the paint, in my opinion. If you suffer from morning sickness and can't stand the smell then you'll be either unable to work, or unable to eat (which could land you in the hospital). You boss is taking a chance that you and your asthmatic colleague could wind up on disability (or quite), which wouldn't exactly be convenient for the company either. Clearly there are viable alternatives: use low odor, zero VOC paint, do the painting outside office hours (it would still stink, though), or just close the damn office for two or three days while the entire place is painted with a larger crew. If your boss doesn't see these as better solutions then that tells you something your really need to know about your boss. It's not like you're making an unreasonable request.

And another thing: people who say "I did this while pregnant; you'll be fine" are full of crap. The jury is out on a lot of things that may or may not be harmful and parents need to use their own judgement and that of their medical caregivers, not submit to the opinions of other people. Some people think it's fine to smoke or drink while pregnant, which is, perhaps regrettably, their choice. You might chose not to do some of these things, and it really has to be your call.
posted by Songdog at 6:32 AM on March 14, 2006

What is up with all the Fire Marshall talk? I've never worked in an office building that had windows that opened. And they were all completely up to code.

I wouldn't work while they were painting - that is a total health risk. I would get breathing problems and migraines.

Talk to your doctor about it, see if you can get a note. I think that's the best start. See how many others are unwilling to work while it's going on - you might be able to persuade her if all of her workers are trying to get out of it.
posted by agregoli at 7:24 AM on March 14, 2006

marajade posted "Is this odd? Isn't this usually done outside of office hours so we don't have to sniff paint fumes for 8 hours?"

I don't think it's odd that painting is done during office hours. Any place I've worked that painted had painting done in the daytime. Though sometimes they would do it on weekends.

Don't bother the Fire Marshal just because the windows don't open. Assuming the rest of the building is up to code there is no requirement for windows to open unless you sleep at the office.

If the painters aren't wearing respirators I doubt calling OSHA is going to do much either. Lack of respirators would tend to indicate that the paint is under the legal maximum exposure levels. It might be worth calling though in case there are special rules in place for pregnant workers. Although you might just find yourself with a couple of days off without pay.
posted by Mitheral at 7:34 AM on March 14, 2006

Are there doors that directly connect your office with the outside? If so, a ventilation scheme could be set up that would minimize the odors.

I am a safety and health type, and have some control of when and where painting takes place. There ARE ways of doing it in an occupied building so that the occupants breath only fresh air, and the odors are exhausted. If the painters are experienced, they will know how to do this.

I highly doubt that there would be an exposure that would violate OSHA standards. . .they are set up for industry, and while air in an office setting can get to unacceptable levels, the MCL's (maximum contaminant levels) of most indoor pollutants will not get high enough to trigger reguatory responses.

If your boss wants to do this, it's her prerogative. . .it also sucks for you.

If the painting goes forward, your best bet is to work with the painters themselves to ventilate.

Good luck.
posted by Danf at 8:32 AM on March 14, 2006

Speaking as someone who works with paint, ask for a copy of the material safety data sheet for the paint being used to see that protection is recommended. Point out to your boss what is says. I can't say for sure, but if there are no windows and it's a smallish space, anyone would need face masks. It really depends on the type of paint and amount of space.
posted by renyoj at 11:48 AM on March 14, 2006

Honestly, why risk your baby's health in the first trimester? In the grand scheme of things, this is the most important.

Put your foot down and make them give you time off or work from home, be it with a doctor's note, lawyer's note or a subtly veiled threat. If all logical and reasonable attempts fail, take sick leave or just don't come in at all. If you get fired, call a lawyer.

Document EVERYTHING that is said and done.
posted by traderjoefan at 1:19 PM on March 14, 2006

if there are no windows and it's a smallish space, anyone would need face masks

I don't think the masks people wear for filtering stuff like sawdust are going to do much good with fumes. Respirators would work but that ain't gonna happen.
posted by Songdog at 2:30 PM on March 14, 2006

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