When employees are ill

An employee complains that her eyes itch and she has a headache. Should a busy supervisor take her seriously?

This broad complaint seems harmless and the tendency may be to put looking into it on the endless to-do list or to dismiss her as a whiner. But how the supervisor responds may affect management/labor relations, and not investigating may mean an employee suffers ill health as a result of being exposed to a chemical.

Employees are increasingly knowledgeable and concerned about what they are exposed to in the workplace. Employee health problems may be triggered by other workplace events — concerns about downsizing, poor relationships with co-workers or supervisors, overtime, relocation, dissatisfaction with the job — but they may be an early indication that ventilation is inadequate.

When employees express concern about exposures or indicate they’re suffering from ill health, the supervisor should follow up promptly. An investigation should determine the frequency and duration of symptoms, recent changes in the work area, including new processes or chemicals, whether the onset of symptoms correlates with a change from heating to air conditioning, and when and how frequently the symptoms subside. The employee who complained and others in the area should be interviewed, with care taken not to lead them to conclusions.

Responding promptly and keeping employees informed of the progress of the investigation reassures them that management is interested in their well-being and provides an opportunity to resolve potential problems quickly. Employees often have a solution if the supervisor listens; those who become dissatisfied and don’t feel management is taking their health concerns seriously may complain to the union or to OSHA.

If the interviews are inconclusive and complaints continue, the supervisor may consider outside assistance. The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation –Division of Safety and Hygiene, Ohio Bureau of Employment Services — Onsite Consultation Program or industrial hygiene consulting firms can evaluate air quality in the work area to determine if there are unacceptable concentrations of chemicals or if indoor air quality parameters indicate a potential ventilation problem.

This information is valuable in addressing employee concerns and may be useful in future workers’ compensation claims.

A prompt response, keeping employees informed and reporting results maintain a positive working relationship and usually prevent outside agencies from becoming involved. Even if the investigation doesn’t yield a measurable problem, the reassurance that the work place has been tested and it is not unsafe is often all the employee is looking for. Dianne Grote Adams is president of Emilcott/DGA Inc. She can be reached at 890-0800 or www.emilcott-dga.com.