Two events have strengthened significantly the hand of those of us who want to exercise our right to breathe clean air at work, unpolluted by colleagues’ cigarette smoke.
Civil servant Joan Clay recently received massive publicity when she won the right to have her smoke triggered asthma attacks treated as an industrial accident.
But a second and potentially far more significant case has received almost no media coverage. In this case, a 5l year old woman office worker has made history by being granted legal aid to fight for damages arising out of passive smoking.
In what will be an important test case, this office worker plans to sue her employers for compensation for the severe respiratory damage she claims was caused by working in a smoky office.
The evidence against passive smoking is not in doubt. The most recent research published in l988 by the government’s Independent Committee on Smoking and Health found that passive smoking brings a l0 to 30 per cent increase in lung cancer. Several hundred people die every year from passive smoking, the report chillingly concludes.
Although liability has yet to be tested in the courts, some employers have already tacitly admitted responsibility by making out of court settlements to workers. Seven years ago members of trade union NUPE made a passive smoking damages claim against their employer (ironically, a health authority). Rather than face a court case, the employers made ex gratia payments of money (which meant they didn’t have to admit liability), and the case went unreported. No one knows how many other claims have been settled.
If the office worker wins her case she will be in line for “substantial” damages, says her solicitor Robin Lewis, from civil liberties firm Bindmans. “We will be looking for the same level of damages as if she were a working woman who suffered a catastrophic car accident.”
Lewis believes that even if employers try to resist taking action, their hands will be forced by their insurers.
“I think we could get a situation where insurance companies start loading the premiums of employers who allow smoking in the workplace,” he says.
It may take a couple of years for the case to come to court. But in the meantime, you can use it as a weapon to force your employer’s hand if you are having to work in a smoky office.
Make sure your employer knows what’s at stake. Point out that the evidence against passive smoking is clear and was accepted by the government as far back as l988.
Tell your employers that expensive damages claims are pending.
Contact your environmental health officer (if you work in an office), or your health and safety inspector (if you work in a factory). Get them to come to inspect your workplace. If they think it’s a health risk, they can make an Improvement Order (which places a duty on the employer to improve conditions by a set deadline) or a Prohibition Order (which means no work can be carried out in the area until conditions are improved).
Point out that your employer has a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to provide a safe working environment.
Enlist the support of your staff association or trade union.
Contact the anti smoking group ASH for its employees’ information pack, “Clearing the Air at Work”. ASH also runs seminars and offers a consultancy service to give practical advice in individual work situations. (Action on Smoking and Health, 5-ll Mortimer St, London WlN 7RH. Tel: O7l 637 9843).
Let your employer know that many household name companies Ford, British Telecom, The Body Shop, BP, ICL have no smoking policies.
Finally, contact your MP. Ask if he or she supports the All party Group on Smoking and Health. This group is pressing for legislation on workplace smoking.