Bad Air Quality
The air here stinks…is it making me sick?
Sometimes you’ve just gotta make a big stink...about a big stink.
Days spent in a workplace with bad air quality can make your life a living hell...or at least smell like the sulfuric stew we associate with Hell. But foul air can go beyondunpleasant...it can be dangerous.
You don’t even have to actually smell anything to suffer from bad air quality – carbon monoxide, for instance, is an odorless but deadly gas.
The potential consequences of these risks vary from respiratory illness to cancer to – in the case of carbon monoxide – brain damage and death.
What to do about bad air quality
If you have any suspicion that there is bad air quality in your workplace, you might well have to cover your face with a mask... but at the same time you have to open your mouth to speak out about the problem.
First things first: Evaluate the situation. The American Lung Association points to various scenarios requiring immediate response:
- Spills or releases of hazardous materials or flooding onto porous materials
- Sewage spills
- Gas leaks
- Sudden onset of headaches, nausea, dizziness or drowsiness, which may signal carbon monoxide poisoning
- Widespread breathing difficulties
- Diagnosed tuberculosis or legionella
Sometimes, though, the warning signs might not be so obvious. So monitor other factors: Have your eyes been stinging at work? Your throat feel raw? Your breath short? Skin itchy? Is there a stench in the air?
If so, talk to your co-workers. Are any of them consistently experiencing the same symptoms you are? If so, it is likely the result of the work environment. And you can now strategize and take action as a group. (Not only is there power in numbers, there’s also safety: U.S. labor law ordinarily offers protection to two or more private sector employees trying to address workplace issues.)
Talk to a doctor or health care provider. This is serious stuff, and you’ve got to take care of yourself. Remember to write down everything the doctor tells you.
If you are a union member, talk to your union rep, because this may be an issue that affects other workers beyond your floor or department.
By law, your employer is responsible for workplace safety. The boss is required to:
- maintain working carbon monoxide detectors and proper ventilation;
- provide respirators if you are overexposed to hazardous chemicals or dust; and
- inform you of any hazards associated with your job.
So talk to the boss. If your boss is full of hot air and doesn’t seem concerned about your health, remind him or her that a healthy work environment is a productivework environment. In fact, research shows that worker performance improves with better ventilation.
And if your boss is still giving you the stink-eye, it might be time to make a stink to a higher-up in the organization. If no one is willing to take action, you can file a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). You can do it confidentially, if you choose. If you are in a state that has an OSHA-approved state program, you can contact that program. And if there is any imminent danger to life and limb, call this number now: 1-800-321-OSHA.
Of course, you might still be wondering:
- Can my employer take revenge? The answer is not legally. Your employer is prohibited by law from retaliating against you for reporting unsafe conditions. Check out what Fix My Job has to say about Illegal or Unethical Behavior.
- When faced with a real danger of death or serious injury, can I refuse to work? The answer is yes, but only if you follow all the steps that OSHA lays out here. If you are a union member, check with your union representative about contractual protections against unsafe work.
Federal Agency: Indoor Air Quality, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Federal Agency: Indoor Environmental Quality, U.S. Centers for Disease Control
Federal Agency: An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Organization: Healthy Air at Work, American Lung Association