How Can Federal Employees Navigate Sick Building Syndrome?

Using the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA to Assert Your Rights

There is nothing worse than knowing you will experience adverse symptoms when at your place of employment. Many offices and worksites can induce a phenomenon known as “sick building syndrome,” or SBS, in which one or more elements of a facility’s condition habitually triggers unpleasant and harmful bodily responses from the employees that work there.

If you are a federal employee who believes they are suffering mild or severe symptoms as a result of sick building syndrome, you may be wondering if there is anything you can do. Fortunately, you have several legal options available to you if your symptoms are impacting your ability to perform your job duties as a federal employee. Below, we cover the specifics of SBS and what steps you can take to address the issue.

What Constitutes Sick Building Syndrome?

SBS is the term assigned to the scenario in which one or more individuals is experiencing measurable symptoms when you are inside a building and another cause cannot be identified. In essence, one presumes SBS is the culprit if nothing else can explain why you are only experiencing symptoms when inside a given facility.

SBS tends to be the result of inadequate indoor air quality. Since most jobs require that you work in a physical office for at least eight hours in a workday, 5 times a week, spending a great amount of time in an environment with poor air quality will in many cases result in the development of troubling symptoms.

SBS can trigger a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Body and limb aches
  • Skin rashes
  • Chronic sneezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Throat pain

Because SBS symptoms can range from the neurological to the respiratory, the condition is often misdiagnosed. Many assume they merely have the cold, flu, or some type of bug, especially if multiple employees in an office simultaneously exhibit symptoms. If you already have a known respiratory issue, like asthma, you may find that your existing symptoms could become exacerbated by SBS.

SBS also affects everyone differently. People may have certain chemical sensitivities that negatively respond to certain types of air quality or other hazardous phenomena present in a workspace.

What Causes Sick Building Syndrome?

It is generally accepted that sick building syndrome is due to hazardous air quality. Many tend to associate poor air with older buildings that have not been properly maintained, but the truth is that a significant number of new and renovated structures, including workspaces, suffer from air quality issues that affect occupants and employees. Air quality can be also be compounded by other problems, including insufficient lighting.

The root cause of SBS-inducing poor air quality can stem from a number of factors, including:

  • Poor ventilation
  • Poor lighting
  • Poor standards of cleanliness (i.e. accumulation of dust, garbage, and muck)
  • Outdated displays that result in eyestrain
  • Proximity to smoke and other toxins
  • Mold or fungal growths
  • Insufficient temperature control (including aggressive humidity or high or low temperatures)
  • Poor acoustics, leading to aggressive levels of noise
  • Pest infestations (including rodents, roaches, and other bugs)
  • Improper cleaning schedules and/or materials (resulting in harmful chemicals lingering in the air when employees are present)
  • Pesticides
  • Formaldehydes, which can sometimes be present in certain types of furniture or flooring
  • Asbestos
  • Carbon monoxide

Some of these root causes, like cleaning products, smoke, and poor lighting, may be noticeably obvious. Others, like the presence of mold, asbestos, or carbon monoxide, are inherently harder to observe. Different combinations of causes are likely to produce different symptoms in different people, but all are harmful and should be addressed.

How Do I Know If I Am Suffering from Sick Building Syndrome?

Determining if the symptoms you are regularly experiencing is the result of SBS will take some trial and error and careful observation over an extended period of time. Once you begin to experience chronic symptoms, you will likely need to consult with a healthcare professional and rule out obvious culprits like the flu, allergies, or other respiratory conditions.

You may be suffering from SBS at your place of employment if you only experience symptoms when physically inside your workplace. As you notice a recurring problem, try to keep careful written records of when symptoms appear or flare, when they cease, and where the incidents are occurring. SBS is likely the blame if your symptoms taper off once you depart your worksite and air quality improves. In some cases, however, symptoms may persist even after departing due to your frequent presence in the hazardous environment.

What Can I Do About Sick Building Syndrome as a Federal Employee?

If you have eliminated common possibilities like allergies or the flu and have tracked that symptoms tend to resurface when you return to work, you are likely suffering from SBS. If the problem has an obvious cause, it may be worth speaking to your manager directly about the issue and your ongoing symptoms. If SBS is impacting multiple employees and the fix is obvious and easy, they may take immediate steps to resolve the problem.

Unfortunately, some employers, including the federal government, can sometimes fail to take SBS seriously. This can be the result of managers not understanding the broadness or scope of the illness and its symptoms. They may insist that you have some other undiagnosed condition or claim it is impossible for a newer building to have air quality issues.

The good news is that chronic SBS symptoms qualify under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) as a condition requiring reasonable accommodations in the federal sector. Under these laws, any employee with a measurable disability that impacts their ability to work is entitled to some accommodation from their employer.

If you have chemical sensitives that result in recurring symptoms or an existing condition that are exacerbated by sick building syndrome, you likely qualify for protections and accommodations under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA. After all, if you are experiencing rashes, eye strain, or flu-like symptoms, you will probably not be able to fulfill your work responsibilities to the best of your ability.

When presented with a valid Rehabilitation Act and/or ADA claim stemming from SBS-related symptoms, your agency must make reasonable accommodations that do not confer an undue hardship. This could mean that you are transferred to a different area of the building, moved to an entirely new office, or permitted to telework or “work from home.” The agency can also change the cleaning products and schedules it is employing, adjust office layouts, replace outdated equipment or lighting, or conduct ventilation investigations, all depending on the nature of the complaint and suspected root cause of the issue.

In most cases, requesting reasonable accommodations will not represent an undue burden on your agency. After all, most fixes associated with SBS symptoms are fairly straightforward and can potentially benefit the entire workforce. Others simply require transferring you to an alternate location. In the rare instance where the government determine accommodating you would constitute an undue hardship, you may be eligible for FERS disability retirement benefits.

Our employment attorneys at Pines Federal have experience advocating for federal employee clients suffering from sick building syndrome. We have helped federal employees navigate numerous types of legal problems over the past 20 years and are prepared to help you obtain the reasonable accommodations you are entitled to under federal law. Our team can assess your symptoms, how they affect your ability to do your job, and what accommodations you believe you need.

If you are a federal employee who believes you are suffering from the ill effects of sick building syndrome, do not hesitate to call (888) 898-9902 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.

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