The stories of people injured by secondhand
Albert J. Benson, January, 1994
Short Stories from S.A.F.E.
Al's Story: Secondhand Smoke at Work Caused Asthmatic Bronchitis and Harrassment
This piece describes the circumstances of my respiratory injuries and ensuing treatment by many of my co-workers who do not understand the difficulties which people with respiratory disabilities have with secondhand tobacco smoke.
I have been working for the same employer since 1981. In the fall of 1985, I began to feel an unusual debilitation. I didn't realize that I was on the threshold of a severe lung/bronchial problem. After the Thanksgiving holiday, which I worked, I developed an extreme "tightness" in my chest and a soreness in the breastbone area of my chest.
I did not realize the implications of these symptoms, so I did not go to a doctor, thinking that it would clear up by itself. However, I did realize that secondhand smoke, which characterized our workplace, was aggravating my condition.
Several of my co-workers and I went to the Human Resources Department to request that our shop area be posted NO SMOKING in compliance with the Los Angeles City Smoking Control Ordinance, which was agreed to. An air operations work area outside our shop had previously been posted, but several cigar and many cigarette smokers blatantly ignored the NO SMOKING signs, as they did in our shop when it also was posted.
My condition did not improve. After repeated exposures to secondhand smoke, I finally went to our family doctor in January, 1986. My chest still felt extremely tight, and painful, as if its interior had been seared by a blow torch. By this time, I realized that the soreness behind my breast bone was an inflammation in my bronchial tubes. The doctor diagnosed my respiratory problems as being caused by secondhand smoke. He gave me a note to this effect, stating that I should not be exposed to secondhand smoke.
Some of the smokers at work continued to abuse me on a regular or an irregular basis, depending on whether they could get by with the violation. Over the weekend of July 12, l986, violations of the company smoking policy and the L.A. City Smoking Ordinance by one smoker affected me so severely that I developed a serious case of pneumonia. My lungs filled up with mucous so that I "bubbled" when I breathed. My doctor treated me with weekly shots of penicillin for several months until the congestion cleared up.
My company's medical insurance plan informed me that they would not pay for workplace injuries, and that I would have to file for Workers' Compensation. I finally found an attorney who would handle respiratory injuries caused by tobacco smoke. I also discovered that a Workers' Comp claim can be very confrontational and alienating. I worried about losing my job.
It was at this time that management asked for a meeting with me regarding my injury and Workers' Comp claim. It was decided that I would have to do my own "policing" since management apparently considered this to be an impossible problem.
Many people cannot believe that anyone can be injured by tobacco smoke. We are treated as if our problem is a sham.
Just before the date of my Workers' Comp medical exam, I was asked to assist in cutting some coaxial video cables to length in a long hallway. The cigar smoker who had been abusing me the most, made it his business to stand midway in this same hallway to smoke his cigar. Even though it made me very ill at the time, I did not falter in my duties.
I developed pneumonia again and my lungs filled with mucous, which made it obvious to the examining physician that I did indeed have a hypersensitivity to secondhand tobacco smoke. Even though he was a smoker, he wrote my injury up as "Asthmatic Bronchitis caused by tobacco smoke." The hallway cigar smoking incident was detailed in my Workers' Comp deposition.
It is interesting that for any other kind of workplace injury, if the conditions which caused or contributed to the injury are not immediately corrected, the employer would be in serious trouble with the insurance company and/or the State of California.
It is obvious that people who smoke are not concerned about the great harm that they are doing to their own bodies. Unfortunately, many of them couldn't care less about other people who have to breathe their secondhand smoke. If people who are aware of my condition smoke in my vicinity, or smoke in an area where I must pass, what am I to think of their intentions? Can it be considered anything less than an intentional assault? And yet that is what I and other people with this kind of disability have encountered in our workplaces.
The information in this piece is entirely truthful. I have tried to describe the conditions and situations surrounding my workplace injury, with the hope that we will have laws to better protect all of us, children and adults, from secondhand tobacco smoke. Smokers should go outside to satisfy their tobacco smoke addiction. They should not be allowed to expose other people to this dangerous pollutant, no matter what the circumstances.
Albert J. Benson
Back to top of Page
Laurie's Story: Assaulted on the Job
My name is LAURIE. I am 40 years old, have been an executive secretary for 20 years, and I have three small children. I AM A SECONDHAND SMOKE VICTIM. The exposure to secondhand smoke over many years in the workplace has destroyed my health.
I have never smoked; my family does not smoke. In San Jose I worked for eight years in a small office with six chain smokers. The office air looked like the smokey haze of a pool hall. I protested frequently saying it was ruining my health, but I was ridiculed as being a non-smoker.
I moved to Southern California and worked four years in a large corporate office where everyone around me smoked. My respiratory health deteriorated and multiple medications started. For the last five years I have been on repeating courses of steroids and antibiotics.
My respiratory illness progressed to where earlier this year I was hospitalized as a pulmonary patient five weeks before my baby's due date. I was forced to have a C-section a month early while I could still breathe, but putting my baby at risk. Very recently I was hospitalized for ten days after being exposed to secondhand smoke and fireworks smoke at an outdoor concert. After hospitalization, my doctors sent me to Scripps Clinic in La Jolla for further medical evaluation.
I have been diagnosed with extremely irritated, hyper-reactive respiratory system, adult onset asthma, and vocal cord dysfunction. I asked two doctors, "What are the symptoms of a secondhand smoke victim?" They both said it is what I have.
I am barely able to speak as my larynx and vocal cords spasm and close. If I come into any contact with smoke, my throat closes and bronchials tighten, and I cannot breathe. It feels like drowning. It is frustrating and frightening.
I was recently told by my OB that I need surgery, but she "will not risk my life to give me anesthesia." Two other doctors concur - I need surgery - but only when I can breathe.
MY RESPIRATORY ILLNESS, PRECIPITATED BY SECONDHAND SMOKE, HAS AFFECTED ALL AREAS OF MY LIFE.
1. I have no social life. Going out is like walking through a field of land mines.
2. I have economic stress with medical bills and I am losing my job. I have been
on disability three times this year.
3. I am facing other health risks - delaying necessary surgery.
4. As the result of five years of multiple courses of steroids, I am 90 pounds overweight. Every time I get to where I am starting to take weight off, I have a breathing problem, and I'm back on steroids and more weight gain. I don't recognize myself in the mirror. I have size 10 to 22 clothes in the closet and nothing fits.
5. My home life is stressed. My husband is frustrated with my illness. I can barely lift and carry my baby because of my chest pain. And more tragically, my two sons, ages 4 and 6, think I am dying. My 4-year- old separates out the "Mommy toys" because "they are dying." My 6-year-old goes to bed saying, "Mommy, please don't die. We will miss you too much."
I just wish I could stand before you with my bag of medications in hand. THIS IS SO PREVENTABLE IF PEOPLE WILL ONLY LISTEN. Even though I had letters from my doctor stating I needed a smokefree working environment, nobody listened.
Back to top of Page
Esther's Story: A Little Bit of Secondhand Smoke Can Go a Long Way
I used to be a teacher until I was injured by secondhand smoke. It drifted into my classroom from an employee lounge so distant that I did not understand what was happening to me until it was too late. In April, 1992, I received a Workers' Compensation settlement of $29,999, but it is a sad victory since my lung damage is too severe for me to teach anymore or hold a full time job.
The smoke came from a small employee lounge that was set up in September, 1987. The smoke traveled down a long hall and up a flight of stairs propelled by air currents in the building. Other teachers smelled the smoke; they complained of headaches and eye irritation.
I, however, was more vulnerable because I have asthma. It became difficult for me to breathe and project my voice. I would become so hoarse that by the end of the day, I could not produce sounds. My medicine did not help me. I did not believe what was happening to me. In my doctor's office and at home I did not have symptoms.
As the months went by, it took enormous effort for me to walk to and from my car, to carry materials up and down the stairs.
By the end of 1988, I had become so weak I could hardly stand on my feet in my classroom. I leaned against walls and filing cabinets trying to teach. My resistance to illness was so low that I contracted one respiratory infection after another, each one lasting longer and leaving me increasingly weaker.
In addition, there were the bronchial spasms. Imagine a charley horse in your calf, the kind that wakes you in the middle of the night. I would take a deep breath in my classroom and my bronchial tubes would spasm, like a charleyhorse. It was incredible and frightening.
The worst of this entire experience was the disbelief that I encountered when I suggested to the school administrator and the people who were smoking that it was the tobacco smoke that was making me ill.
By April of 1989,. I could no longer force myself to get out of bed and go to work. In May, a lung specialist provided a diagnosis: severe, progressive and irreversible chronic obstructive airway disease in addition to asthma. According to my physicians, the condition had probably been developing for years. (My parents had both smoked when I was a child with asthma.) The secondhand smoke had aggravated the existing respiratory problems.
What is interesting to me is that prior to the exposure to the secondhand smoke in my classroom, I was physically strong enough to teach. Now I am not. I also had a second career as a professional singer and had made several cassette recordings. My career as a singer is also over.
After the article about my settlement appeared in the Los Angeles Times, I received phone calls from all over California from people who had also been injured by secondhand smoke. Their stories were so similar to mine.
According to a staff member at the American Lung Association in Los Angeles, fully 20% of the population are at risk of developing lung disease from secondhand smoke, and not even recognize it is happening until it is too late. It is possible to develop asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema from secondhand smoke. In addition, approximately 10% of the population suffer as I do from respiratory disabilities. We are a nonvisible population group, and we are entitled to protection from secondhand smoke.
In fact, now with the new Americans with Disabilities Act, it is clear to me that secondhand smoke deprives persons with respiratory disabilities from access to the workplace and public accommodations. And that is a denial of civil rights.
I became a teacher because there were not many careers available to people with asthma when I was growing up. Smoking was an accepted practice in all workplaces except, I thought, public school classrooms. It is the ultimate irony that even in a public school classroom I was not safe.
Now I am worried about my children who also have asthma and allergies. My son has just had to quit two jobs in succession because exposure to tobacco smoke made him ill. How long will innocent people continue to be hurt?
Back to top of Page
Charles's Story: Management Almost Killed Me with Secondhand Smoke
My name is Charles Green, I'm 39 years old, and I used to be an athletic person. Now I'm receiving a small monthly Social Security Disability payment because I have lung disease which is so severe that I cannot perform my usual occupation which was just sitting at a desk, talking on the phone, and working with a computer. Also, I have recently developed epilepsy. It appears that I will never work again.
The individuals in charge of the company where I worked from January, 1990 to December, 1991, were all people who smoked. I was recruited to work as a claims adjuster by a friend I knew from another job. He was a smoker and he knew I had asthma. The job interview took place in a restaurant, and I didn't see the office until my first day on the job.
I was looking forward to working in an air conditioned building with my own desk. After 18 years of working outdoors for automobile dealerships as a service advisor, on my feet, getting rained on, being cold, being hot, it sounded like a good deal.
But my first day on the job, I noticed that there was a lot of cigarette smoke in the air. The company was located in a converted warehouse and the area where I sat, called the "bull pen", was a space about 50 by 50 feet with no windows. There were spaces for 8 to 15 employees in little cubicles. Most of the employees in the bull pen were people who smoked. Other employees, who also smoked, would wander in from time to time just to hang out. The claims supervisor was a chain smoker. The owner of the company smoked and so did the company attorney.
When I first started working for the company, I was using several medications to control my asthma. But as the weeks went by, I noticed I was needing more and more medicine. I told my friend, who was my immediate supervisor, that I was having trouble breathing, and his answer was "Live with it." I asked if the air conditioner could be turned on, and he answered, "It doesn't work." At that time I didn't understand that secondhand smoke could be so dangerous for people with asthma. I only started to have asthma when I was about 30 years old and I didn't know much about it. My father had been a chain smoker.
I discovered later that the warehouse had been remodeled by my employer without the knowledge of the owner of the building, and that the ventilation system had not been adjusted for the new offices that had been installed. Also, the ventilation system was very old and didn't work most of the time. In the bull pen, the vents did not exhaust the air out or bring outside air in.
Because I kept complaining about the ventilation and the smoke, I was put on probation, even though my job performance was excellent.
I started needing to go to the doctor more frequently; he was treating me with shots of adrenalin and cortisone. Frequently the pain of the treatment was unbearable. I was missing a lot of time from work. In March, 1990, I had to be taken directly from work to the hospital because of a severe asthma attack. In fact, during my two years working for this company I had to be taken to the hospital or emergency room 12 or 13 times because I couldn't breathe.
The Vice President of the company, the only nonsmoker, kept urging that the company adopt a no-smoking policy. For a short time, people were supposed to smoke only in the kitchen, which was next to the bull pen, but no one enforced it. In September, 1990, the company officially adopted a policy that said the break rooms, the rest rooms, the conference rooms, the bull pen and the claims supervisor's office were all smoking areas.
A campaign of harassment began against me. My medicines began to disappear off my desk, people would walk by my desk or sit in a chair by my desk and deliberately blow smoke in my direction, ignoring my strongly worded requests that they leave. One man fell on the floor pretending to have an asthma attack; he thought it was a really funny joke.
I was trying desperately to find another job, but California was in the middle of a serious recession in 1990-91. I was beginning to have terrible side effects from all the medicine I was taking, and the stress and anger I felt because of the harassment was causing other health problems.
In May, 1991, I saw a new physician who said that at the very least the smoke was making the asthma worse, and that it could kill me. He wrote a note requesting a smokefree workplace for me. He even called the claims supervisor.
The claims supervisor was furious. He said he would not tolerate a doctor telling him how to run his department. He sat down in the chair next to me, blew smoke in my face, and told me to keep working. When I reached for my inhalers, he took them off my desk. I was having so much trouble breathing that I asked for an ambulance. People were just standing around and watching.
A friend helped me to his car and took me to the hospital. When I regained consciousness, my wife and my pastor were there and the doctors were saying that I had almost died.
In the meantime, the City of Long Beach, where our company was located, was in process of passing a smokefree workplace ordinance. There was a lot of information about it in the local newspaper. Another claims adjuster, who was a non smoker, sent away for information about secondhand smoke and after we read it, we both put no smoking signs on our desks.
It came out later in the depositions that management was saying behind my back, "It's all in his head" and calling me a crybaby. But other nonsmokers had also been complaining about the smoke. Management was saying that the nonsmokers were trying to harass them and make them change their life style.
Because I was injured and disabled by secondhand smoke, I was awarded a workers' compensation settlement of $60,000 and an additional $40,528 for medical bills, but there were other medical bills my wife and I had to pay ourselves. The owners of the building where I was injured settled out-of-court for $32,000 and part of that was needed to pay my attorney who had filed suit for me for wrongful termination and negligence - premises liability. The company that had employed me declared bankruptcy and went out of business several months after they fired me.
I realize that people who smoke are addicted. But I don't understand an addiction that causes you to try to kill an employee. I try not to be angry, because my body is too fragile now to handle being angry. But it's very hard to forgive these people.
A Note From S.A.F.E.: We met Charles in April, 1995 and this is only a brief synopsis of his story. If you would like further information about Charles, or other stories of people injured by secondhand smoke, please contact us at S.A.F.E. Smokefree Air For Everyone.
S.A.F.E. Smokefree Air For Everyone is a network of individuals who have been injured or disabled by secondhand smoke. Our mission is to provide peer support, information, and referrals to individuals in crisis because of secondhand smoke. We are volunteers and our work is sustained by contributions.
Back to top of Page
Short Stories from S.A.F.E.
Contact: Esther Schiller, S.A.F.E.
Smokefree Air For Everyone
KA was a flight attendant. Has had a portion of her sinuses removed because of pre-cancerous polyps. Workers' comp claim is being refused by the airline.
TB worked in a county court house for eighteen years. Filed a grievance due to secondhand smoke related asthma. County adopted smokefree policy but does not enforce it. TB cannot return to work because she is sensitive to smoke coming from private offices.
DH worked in an office of a medical insurance company. Many people smoked. Filed a workers' comp claim and got another job.
EE worked in the purchasing department of a large grocery chain. Many employees smoked. Large sores formed inside his nose which distorted his face. When he complained about the smoke, he was told the company would be pleased if he quit. He developed multiple chemical sensitivity and chronic fatigue. Workers' comp case in process.
HC had headaches and nausea. Many people smoked in the office. He kidded them about it hoping things would change. Discovered mismanagement which he reported to home office. Mismanagement involved many people who smoked. Office now has a smokefree policy. HC is still working there. Many of the people who smoked are not.
LB, extremely skilled typesetter. Has never been able to stay in a job because of problems with secondhand smoke. Has no retirement.
NR, public relations practitioner. Office in a high rise commercial office building. New hire complained about smoke coming in through air conditioning system. NR agreed there was a problem but could do nothing. Had to lay off employee who then filed a workers' comp claim.
EC worked in the Post Office. Co-worker smoked and was very aggressive and insistent about her right to smoke. Smoked in posted no-smoking areas. Managers would not enforce no smoking policy. EC developed heart disease. Had to take early retirement. Filed workers' comp claim which is pending.
KC, an attorney practicing law in L.A. Secondhand smoke in courthouse halls made her so ill she could not stand. Was sick for a long time. Now in private practice in Santa Barbara.
CF gave up smoking years ago. Was working as a journalist. An open door allowed smoke from editor's office into hers. She got sick, missed many days of work. Asked to keep connecting door closed. Request refused. Brought a note from her doctor and was fired. Took legal action and won but company filed for bankruptcy.
BS, drummer in his 30's. Has wife and two young children. Does casuals in smoke-filled bars and nightclubs. Drumming is like an aerobic exercise, he says, which makes it doubly unhealthful in a smoke filled nightclub.
PR, waitress in smoke-filled restaurant. Owner refused to abide by the new Smokefree Restaurant Ordinance in city of L.A. PR reported code violations to Environmental Health Department. Was fired. Legal action in process.
AS worked for large private university in business office. Was getting sick because of secondhand smoke. Began a quiet campaign for a smokefree policy. Co-workers who smoked began to harass her. She feared the loss of her reputation and her job. Requested and got a transfer to another department. A year later the university adopted a smoke-free policy.
CSC was a flight attendant. Developed lung cancer a year after giving birth to her first child at the age of 39. Died. Workers' comp case pending.
OO had a miscarriage. Worked in an office where one of the managers was a chain smoker. Wanted to start a family, but afraid to try again.
CD, security guard for large defense company. Parents had been smokers. Extremely sensitive to secondhand smoke. Campaigns publicly for a smoke free company policy and one is adopted for offices. But fellow security guards still smoke in guard booths and time clock area. When she complains her car is vandalized. She develops stress related illness but doesn't want to lose her job.
GS graduates college and accepts his first full-time job in a private mental hospital. GS has had asthma since birth. His tasks include supervising patients in the lounge area, lighting their cigarettes. He has never been exposed to secondhand smoke on a daily basis. Within a month his asthma is so severe, he fears he will die. Workers' comp case settled for over $6,500. Has become extremely sensitive to secondhand smoke.
AA, nurse works for VA on night shift in ward for alcoholics. At night when they are sleeping they don't smoke. She is transferred to day shift and becomes extremely ill because of the secondhand smoke. When she complains, supervisor who is a smoker laughs at her and gives her a poor evaluation. She is too ill to continue to work in that environment. Legal action pending.
DJ, another flight attendant. Has worked for airlines for many years while smoking was permitted. Now she has developed asthma and is extremely susceptible to colds. Every time she flies, she gets sick. She is out on disability.
DK took a job with a tobacco store. Was assured he would not be exposed to smoke but that was not the case. Picture 10-15 cigar smokers all puffing away in a 10 x 12 room. He is out on disability.
DS works in a gambling casino. Likes her job and the money but fears the smoke. Feels that she should not have to risk serious illness and death because of other people's addiction.
SS has lived in a Simi Valley second floor apt. for one year. A couple moved into the first floor apt. The man is retired and sits and smokes all day. When his wife returns from work, she lights up. On weekends, their friends come by and smoke. The second floor is filled with smoke.
IS complained about the smoke in the car dealership waiting room. She was waiting to get her car fixed. She is 70 and on a respirator because of lung disease. She was told to wait outside. She had to leave and when she tried to secure an appointment on another day, they refused to serve her.
Elizabeth Voigt was a bartender in a smokefree bar at the San Francisco airport. Had a history of heart disease. Airport became smokefree except for all of the bars. EV was exposed to secondhand smoke and became very ill. Has just had a heart transplant. Workers comp claim in process.
Rosita Garcia worked as a waitress in a bar in the San Francisco Airport for eleven years. Never smoked. Father smoked, but never inside the home. Rosita did not frequent smokey places in her off hours. She complained about the smoke in the bar, that the ventilation system was inadequate. Diagnosed with lung cancer. Employer denies liability.
Back to top of Page