Environment Canada’s Solution to Toxic Office Air?
by Charlotte Hutchinson
UPdate Fall 1999
Is the picture of me wearing an industrial respirator just an attention-getting device so you’ll read this article? Or did my employer, Environment Canada (EC), buy it for me to wear at a toxic industrial site? “No” to both questions. John Clarke, the Head of Water Pollution, Atlantic
Region, had it bought for me in 1996 to wear in the office at Queen Square, Dartmouth. It arrived on my desk in a manila envelope with the note, “This is for you. You are expected to wear it.”
A squeaky wheel was getting greased. And a disabled employee was being marginalized.
I had become environmentally ill (EI) in the early 1980’s, mainly through my employment with the Federal Government in sick, air-conditioned buildings, some newly renovated. Queen Square was one.
I n October 1990, I returned from nearly three years of sick leave and disability leave. In order to accommodate my illness, and increase my chances of staying healthy and at work, I took a demotion from a regional personnel manager of two services to an environmental engineering
Dr. Karen MacDonald of Health Canada wrote EC “...it would be advisable for her to avoid air-conditioning, tobacco smoke, and chemical odours if at all possible.”
Despite the fact that Queen Square did not meet the medical recommendations, I was able to remain (competently) in the work force until 1995 because of an understanding human resources officer, an enlightened Regional Director General and the compassion and cooperation of the majority of my co-workers and my supervisor. In 1995 the situation changed. A notorious and unrelenting scent user was moved close to my work area. Also major
renovations were imminent for all EC floors in Queen Square. I had to appeal to different managers and human resources officers to accommodate my sensitivities and my disability. The war was on.
The people I dealt with appeared to know little about EI and sick building syndrome or their legal, if not moral, obligation to maintain a safe work space, as well as advising employees of dangers. They seemed unaware of the in-house fiasco the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency experienced with sick building syndrome.
A survey of EC employees at Queen Square in the summer of 1995, conducted by the Safety and Health Committee, revealed that I was far from the only employee experiencing health problems in the building. 73 of 160 surveys were returned -- an exceptionally high return rate at 44 per cent, when 10-15 per cent is considered a success on such an internal survey.
The first question was, “Which of the following symptoms do you suffer from and to what degree? Please confine your answers to the work situation.” The responses (see box) ranged from fatigue and headache (51 per cent) to seizures (1 per cent). That’s a sampling of the condition of the work force the taxpayer is paying to protect our environment.
In June 1996, Dr. MacDonald wrote EC, “We have seen Ms. Hutchinson in our office for a fitness for work evaluation...and once again we feel she is fit with limitations.
“It certainly appears that she is having significant difficulties in Queen Square and we strongly recommend that she be based in another work location (i.e. another building). It should be in an area where sufficient off-gassing of building materials, furniture, flooring, etc. has taken
“We recommend that she avoid exposure to perfume and other strong odours such as cleaning chemicals and solvent odours. She should not be around any renovations which would involve strong paint odours, dust, new carpet, etc. It would be advisable for her to work in an area with as little in the way of “fabric” as possible, i.e. no carpet, curtains, etc. There should be a weekly cleaning program with damp mopping and dusting with a damp cloth. It is preferable for cleaning to be done after hours.
“She should not be in the vicinity of photocopiers, laser printers, etc. (It is recommended now that photocopiers be vented to the outside.) It is also advisable for her to have a window that opens. The ventilation system should have a regular maintenance schedule and there should be the appropriate amount of fresh air coming in. The environmental health officer and I would be willing to visit any workspace you may be considering to provide any recommendations and suggestions...”
In August 1996, Paul Moore, an Environmental Health Officer with Health Canada, wrote EC. The paragraph which should have been a red flag to EC management, particularly when put together with the results of the survey, stated: “For the majority of office workers, the hundreds of known trace chemicals, irritant dusts, and numerous bioaerosols (yeasts, moulds, bacteria, pollen, spores, dander, etc.) do not cause severe discomfort. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers, Inc. (ASHRAE), which is the cited reference in the Treasury Board OSH Manual for both thermal conditions (55-1981), and ventilation requirements (62-1981) defines “Acceptable Air Quality.” Within this definition is the
phrase ‘...and with which a substantial majority (usually 80 per cent) of the people exposed do not express dissatisfaction.’”
I n relation to employees with EI, Paul Moore said, “In October of 1995, Dr. H.K. Lee, an IAQ specialist with Health Canada conducted a review of complaints and OEHSD IAQ investigation procedures within a large Federal Government Office Building in downtown Halifax. During this visit, the issue of Environmental Hypersensitivity was brought forward by some of the
“In his final report, Dr. Lee noted in the conclusions and recommendations section, that ‘Acceptable IAQ objectives are designed to satisfy a substantial majority of building occupants. Environmental Hypersensitivity is beyond the scope of acceptable IAQ objectives. It is recommended that EH cases be treated as individual medical problems, and be turned over to the occupational health physicians for further processing.’”
My lay interpretation of this, enlightened by other events in my case, is that if a federally occupied building’s air quality is tested and passes the ASHRAE standards (as Queen Square generally did), 20 per cent of the workers can still suffer health effects from working there. It doesn’t address workers who have pre-existing health problems. It doesn’t mean that if
you’re healthy to-day, you might not be getting sick by working there.
In August 1996, management of EC Atlantic questioned the value of the survey and sent it to Statistics Canada just prior to the first hearing on my refusal, under the provisions of the Canada Labour Code, to work at Queen Square. The Department wrote, “...We would appreciate an evaluation of this survey, in particular an analysis of the questions asked. Also would the results of this survey be considered reliable in terms of standard statistical methods?...” Statistics Canada wrote back, “...These results are considered reliable. (Further commentary available upon request.)” Management didn’t write back for the “further commentary.” They successfully buried the survey at the hearing. The Public Service Staff
Relations Board ruled the environment to be safe.
The management team members at EC Queen Square who handled my case were
largely engineers. They had access to all the information I had.
Yet in November 1996, Ken Hamilton, the Regional Director of the Environmental Protection Branch, wrote all staff of EC Queen Square after Labour Canada upheld my second work refusal, “The attached direction has been received from Human Resources Development Canada -- Labour. The documentation that is attached to this direction clearly states that it is
applicable to Charlotte Hutchinson. The workplace was otherwise found to be safe.” In fact, the documentation wouldn’t logically lead to that conclusion. When I was terminated by Hamilton, by fax, with less than 9 hours notice in April 1997 what were employees told by him? “...most of you are already aware of her stated health condition and her resultant incapacity to perform the duties of her position.” If you were an employee of EC at Queen Square having health problems in the building, and you valued your job, would you speak up under those circumstances?
With regard to the industrial respirator and many other actions taken, management, (including the Minister, Christine Stewart) and human resources (including the Director General, Ginette Cloutier) seemed oblivious to international and Canadian laws and policies regarding the dignity and integration of the disabled and the accommodation of the disabled up to the
point of undue hardship. They repeatedly ignored the fact that the mask was not only highly inappropriate for office wear and use, but that the materials in it made me sick. As recently as February and May 1999 the Atlantic Regional Director General, Garth Bangay defended, under oath, management’s purchase of the respirator for office wear. According to him it showed their deep concern for me. And Bangay said, “It’s not pretty, but it works. I have one myself.” (However, he’s never been seen wearing it at Queen Square.) I displayed the respirator as “Environment Canada’s Solution to Toxic Office Air” at two recent events -- including an environmental fair. I invited discussion and comments. No one agreed with Bangay’s
condoning of the respirator. Some of the comments were:
“This mask is terrifying!...How could anyone expect a person in the workplace to interact ‘normally’ with someone wearing this monstrosity? The look is intimidating, the voice distorted and muffled, the body language and facial expression hidden. What this really avoids is the acknowledgment that the workplace is unsafe, unbreathable, toxic -- not just for the person
who is too ill to continue without a mask, but for all who slowly but surely are having their resistance eroded over time. Will there be a day when masks are standard issue on the first day of employment? Welcome to Environment Canada!”
“How can we expect direction or a vision, a necessary, gutsy and courageous vision from Environment Canada if they are capable of the arrogance and stupidity to expect an ill employee to wear a toxic mask? The problem requires considerable time, effort, money and respect. The ‘solution’ provided by the mask so clearly shows the shallowness and more seriously, the refusal of Environment Canada to address this urgent problem.”
Ken Hamilton, who was EC project leader for raising the Irving Whale, was tasked by Garth Bangay with finding me a safe place to work. He had an unlimited budget to raise the Whale which eventually amounted to $48,000,000. Bangay testified under oath in May this year that money was not an issue in finding me a safe place to work.
EC had letters from both Health Canada and my family doctor telling them what type of accommodations I needed. The requirements didn’t seem that complicated to me. They all boiled down to “clean air”. Most older style buildings, abundant in downtown Dartmouth, would have met, or could have easily been made to meet, those parameters. However, Hamilton, the engineer who succeeded in raising the Irving Whale without breaking it in two, who called in consultants with expertise as required for the Whale, wasn’t able to solve the problem of finding me a safe office.
EC ordered me to try eight locations. Four were on various floors of Queen Square, two were in other typical air-conditioned office towers, one was a warehouse and the other was adjacent to, and shared the air with, a warehouse. None met more than two or three of the ten or so requirements outlined by the medical experts. The warehouse was almost condemned the following year because of all the safety and health violations. It was fit only for storage, not human occupation -- an odd place to order an environmentally ill employee to work.
EC seemed surprised that none of the locations worked out. I wasn’t.
EC didn’t seem to grasp that there are inherent dangers in closed, air-conditioned buildings. First of all, the ventilation system, if not scrupulously maintained, can harbour serious problems. Most of us remember Legionnaire’s disease. Secondly, many modern machines and furnishings off-gas chemicals, and/or absorb chemicals for future release. And thirdly,
the occupants bring in a myriad of modern chemicals on their bodies and clothes, many a result of personal “hygiene.” When all these hazards and chemicals are re-cycled in an office you have problems.
One of the reasons EC may have failed to find me a safe place to work was that they made little use of the expertise available to them (unlike the successful Irving Whale project). Health Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Human Resources Development Canada and an outside consultant I had recommended all should have been able to contribute significantly, and one would hope,
successfully. But EC didn’t ask them.
EC tried nothing creative or leading edge. They declined my suggestion to make a “bubble”. They ignored my suggestion for a pilot satellite office in a nearby building -- one that would meet the medical recommendations. They even ignored my offer to pay for a “safe” office that I found in a nearby building.
And it seems that although money was no object according to Bangay, it was with his subordinates. It also seems that there was a great fear of “setting a precedent.” They seemed concerned that if they gave me, and possibly some other employees, an office with good air quality, soon everybody would want one. I expect they were right.
Some months after the survey of 1995, eight or so employees met with the Regional Safety Officer, Mike de la Ronde expressing concerns for their health because of the air quality . Within a couple of months of my departure an employee collapsed because of scent exposures at Queen Square. An ambulance was called.
So far there is little indication of EC addressing this problem. EC Atlantic did post “no scents is good sense” signs months after I provided them. They don’t enforce this initiative, however. Garth Bangay bragged at one recent hearing that EC Atlantic was leading the pack in EC by having these signs posted. Other regions were asking for copies of them. EC Atlantic was even in the process of creating a new poster design. Acting on legal advice, it brought in experts to talk to employees about the subject of environmental illness. The first two speakers were environmentally ill themselves. They got sick in Queen Square. When EC renovated Queen Square, some of the work was done using “environmentally friendly” but not necessarily people friendly products and methods. However, the result only met a few of the medical recommendations provided to protect me.
Finally, as I later found out, EC decided the only solution they would accept to keep me on the job was if I volunteered to work from home (telework). Although some employees would welcome it, teleworking wasn’t appealing to me. I didn’t want to be distanced from the workplace and my co-workers. It isn’t an effective way for me to work. I termed it a “last resort.” The Public Service Alliance of Canada’s booklet on teleworking terms it “Go Home and Stay There.” Human rights advocates have grave concerns about “marginalizing” the disabled in the workplace, the social sphere and day to day living. “Compulsory” teleworking seems a move
backwards. Would the next step be to stop building wheelchair ramps?
On the day I was terminated, I thought there were still options to be explored which would allow me to continue in the workplace. I was wrong.
I made a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) on the basis that EC had failed to accommodate my disability up to the point of undue hardship. There were also issues of my right to dignity at work and problems of harassment. The investigator who worked on my case was newly hired. Mine was her first case. She had not received any training. The
complaint was dismissed by the CHRC.
So I’m left with a legal challenge of the Commission’s decision which is costing me over $30,000. Too bad I don’t have a job to help pay for it.