“Toxic smell in the office: what can I do?”

Question: My question relates to a drain located in the small office where I work. There is a drain of some sort in the back room that emanates the smell of sewer gas. My nose burns by the end of the day, and my eyes get very irritated. I have complained about the smell twice and everyone in the office – the two owners, their wives and another employee – ignore the smell and accept it.

This is my fourth week on the job, and it is a small office. What steps can I take to have this problem rectified? Am I in a position to tell them that I will only work from home until the drain is fixed? Can I pursue legal action if they fire me? It is a very small company, and I would hate to pursue legal action, but I am trying to conceive, I have chronic sinusitis, and this can’t continue. My lungs feel heavy, too.

Thanks, in advance, for your help.  

Chicago, Illinois

Answer: Dear Jeanna: I’m sorry to hear of your predicament. There should be things you can do. Here are my thoughts:    

1. While health must always be your first priority, I acknowledge that income can be a matter of “survival,” as well. Surely you will understand that health must be your first focus, because without your health, you don’t have much. This is perhaps doubly so when you are trying to conceive, for what happens in the earliest times of pregnancy can affect your child’s health, as well. If at all possible, we all need to try to keep that in mind.

2. When matters of workplace health and safety arise, we first consider state and federal workplace health and safety agencies. This is one of those areas of law that I always consider referring people to the  applicable state and federal agencies, for several reasons, chief among them: (a) They are experts in what to do to address issues that might affect workplace health; (b) their staffs are usually quite knowledgeable about both health issues and what employees can do under applicable law; (c) they are scientifically equipped to determine if the gas is truly harmful, or dangerous, which it may just be; and (d) I have found the staff members of these agencies to be unusually concerned and caring people; after all, concerns about employee health are what motivated them in the first place to take the kind of jobs they’ve taken.

For you, I have located Edna Lubuguin, who is the Indoor Air Quality Specialist for the Chicago office of the Illinois Department of Labor. She can be reached at (312) 793-1825 or by emailing her at edna.lubuguin@Illinois.gov. I suggest you review www.state.il.us.

I’ve also located the Region 5 (Chicago) office of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Agency (“OSHA”). They can be reached at (312) 353-2220, or through www.osha.gov.  

3. Unless the Illinois Department of Labor suggests otherwise, I suggest you call in sick, and email your employer a pleasant and respectful note outlining what you’ve told me, and asking if you can work from home in the meantime. The idea behind this suggestion is that it is very important for you to make a “record” of (a) the problem; (b) your respectful request that it be addressed; (c) your respectful request that you be permitted to work from home for health reasons; and (d) that your absence from the office is not without good reason.

If you are comfortable doing so, you might mention your chronic sinusitis may be a kind of “disability,” and for this you may need an “accommodation” by being permitted to work from home. May I suggest that it might not be a wise idea to mention that you are trying to conceive at this time.

This will help you whether (i) you need to apply for unemployment, (ii) you discover you have legal rights for any firing, and (iii) if your health suffers, and you cannot work, your probable right to Workers’ Compensation and/or Short Term Disability benefits.

You may be especially glad you did this if health concerns related to this gas arise some time in the future, long after you are not working there anymore.

4. If you don’t get this resolved quickly, I suggest you consider an “Involuntary Resignation.” As you may know, I have sort of “invented” a new concept called “involuntary resignation.” This means that you are leaving, not voluntarily, but “involuntarily.” By making a written email record that this is an “involuntary” resignation, this can preserve your right to sue, to get severance, and to any legal rights that may arise – now or in the future.

For great info and insight, consider viewing our 12-minute Sklover-On-Demand Video entitled “Involuntary Resignation.” To do so, just [click here.]    

If you would like to obtain a Model Letter that you can adapt and use to “Involuntarily Resign,” just [click here.]   

5. Especially because health issues are involved, I might also suggest a consultation with a Chicago-area employee-rights attorney. I strongly encourage employees to do all they can on their own before considering consulting with an attorney. However, because matters of health – and possibly the health of a newborn, someday – might be involved, I do encourage you to seek at least an initial consultation with local employment counsel.

If you would like to obtain a list of experienced “employee-side” employment attorneys in Chicago, simply [click here.]

Jeanna, you are in a difficult spot. I hope this has been helpful, and that your health concerns are soon resolved. I wish you, too, the best of luck in every other area of your life, as well. 

My Best,
Al Sklover

P.S.: Want a Blog of Your Own? Develop an “Internet Presence” of your own. It’s a fun, challenging, and rewarding thing to do. And it might even help you get a new or better job. We can help you. Just [click here.]

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© 2012 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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