As the summer progressed, I began to react to perfume, smoke, candles, dish liquid, and laundry detergent. I had an irregular heartbeat, and great periods of weakness would come over me. This didn’t frighten me as much as it pissed me off, however. I was pretty sick of having my life interrupted. I had become sensitive to many different chemicals and couldn’t be around furniture stores, clothing stores, and some department stores. I couldn’t visit one of my good friends because she had a gas stove. Hearing my son’s band perform was out because the clubs where they played allowed smoking. Smoke had never bothered me before, but now I could not tolerate it. Diesel exhaust fumes and I became dire enemies; at times I would choke so badly that I needed to pull the car over and throw up. Prior to the printing press exposure at work in July 1994, none of these everyday chemical exposures bothered me at all would have needed to drink or eat this damn stuff in order for it to bother me. Now I began to need to restrict whom I rode with because new car upholstery and other things bothered me. As a result, I often went places alone, sat alone, and needed to leave early because I was feeling sick. As a “people person,” I grieved about this involuntary social isolation and hated to accept it.
Our department management had at first embarked upon an earnest evaluation of the air-quality problems in our building, but after a while they began to hedge, probably because they found out how much it would cost to fix the problems. They appointed lots of committees and spent a lot of money investigating the problems and possible solutions, but none of the significant solutions have been implemented. All they did was power vacuum the partitions in the rooms, clean the filters (which didn’t introduce fresh air into our unit anyway), and wash the carpets.
Management continued to recommend that workers’ compensation claims like mine be denied. One formerly productive employee who had become sick from this exposure retired early. Some of us who had no choice, like me, fought management. One member of management said to me one day in a testy sort of way, “You know, there are no bad people here.” It wasn’t about good or bad people, it was about ethics and accountability. You don’t ruin the health of over a half a dozen people from neglect and walk away from the situation as if it never happened. I couldn’t walk away from it. I had to live with it. All any of us had done was go to work in good faith. We just wanted to be addressed with respect and not be manipulated. We wanted to be told the truth, allowed our dignity, and accommodated as our doctors asked. It would have been possible in some cases to accommodate this disability with isolation from problem substances through the use of tile floors, old furniture, and an open window.
I saw four doctors of my choice and one at the direction of workers’ compensation. They all said my problems were work-related. The doctor from workers’ comp was just as direct as my specialist. Management and workers’ compensation still hedged to avoid picking me up as a work-related injury. A lot of my co-workers observed the hassle I was getting, and it deterred them from trying to obtain accommodations they needed because they were afraid of losing their jobs or carrying a stigma.
My case worker told the doctors I was consulting that I would be moving to a new site where the simple accommodations I required would be honored. She was in fact moving me back to my old desk where not one accommodation had been addressed, but she led my doctors to believe it was a different site. I refused to go there, and once my doctors understood the situation, they wouldn’t allow me to be placed there.
We had a mediation meeting to discuss the situation, and my case worker wore strong perfume, even though part of the accommodation for me was that I would not be around perfume. It was February, and I was damned if I could wait another three months for a meeting, so I opened all the windows in the meeting room so that I could stay there. She froze. I smiled.
I like to work, and I take pride in the job I do. I was honored as one of 4 “employees of the month” out of about 400 employees in our department statewide. After I began to work offsite because of my health problems, my boss said that the people I was supervising were doing so well that he was nominating us for consideration for the Commissioners’ Team Award. Two of my employees told my boss that I was the best supervisor they had ever had. Shortly thereafter, I took a six-week medical leave at the recommendation of my primary physician. He thought that if I stayed away from the chemical exposures in my workplace for several weeks, I might desensitize enough to be able to tolerate the chemicals at work better.
When I returned to work, however, my boss wouldn’t give me back my regular job duties. He said I was “at the end of the line” and there would be “no more accommodation.” I filed a claim for discrimination against my boss under the American Disabilities Act and eventually won. He was demoted, supposedly voluntarily. He doesn’t speak to me anymore, and if you think that bothers me, that’s a big swing and a miss.
After that problem was resolved, I worked for a year and a half in another site that was wonderful (no chemical exposures that I couldn’t tolerate). Unfortunately, the site became impossible for me when they moved in a huge photocopier, which meant I could no longer work in that site. I was out of work for a while, but have now been placed in a site again. It’s not working out too well, however, because I have a smokestack 100 feet from my window and I have to leave the window open to reduce my exposure to the low levels of chemicals offgassing from various things in my worksite. Management apologized that they had to put me so close to the smokestack, but their apologies don’t go far toward improving my health problem.
Accountability is important, but our department doesn’t seem to have recognized that. An example? Management still refers to this as the “alleged” air quality problem.
Marilyn’s update: It is 1999 now and I have been working out of my home for a year. That has worked out well and enabled me to stay relatively healthy. Management considers this a temporary placement, however. Last April they remodeled what was supposed to be a safe room for me to work in, but that didn’t work out for several reasons. I had to share a general restroom cleaned with strong chemical cleaners, I had to walk through newly carpeted rooms to reach my office, and I had to use a photocopier in another section. When I use a photocopier for any length of time, I have blurred vision and my breathing peak flow reading for asthma goes down about 30%. But the heat unit is the biggest offender in the “clean room.” I am very reactive to it.
Since the failed work trial in the remodeled room, I feel I am in the “line of fire” from management. My supervisor actually stated he could not accept the idea that there was no cure for this disease. Since then my work had been scrutinized and “work problems” have been alluded to. This is a first for me, a far cry from the days when I was an “employee of the month” and had very good evaluations.
My level of health is directly related to what chemicals I come in contact with. A mild to moderate exposure brings moderate reactions that I can tolerate. A strong exposure incapacitates me. Working at home has enabled me to minimize my exposure to chemicals and keep my health from deteriorating further. I have spent much time defending this disability to my employer and fighting for my right to work at home. Because I feel I don’t have another choice, I am filing with the Human Rights Commission this coming week based on a hostile work environment and disability discrimination. We’ll see.