He is a D.C. firefighter who quit smoking about six months ago. But the other fellows in his firehouse all smoke, and they are making the quitter's life miserable. "They tease me, they harass me, they insult my manhood," the firefighter said. "Sometimes I'll be trying to sleep in my bunk and they'll walk up and blow smoke in my face. And legally, I can't do anything about it."
She is one of eight secretaries at a K Street law firm. The secretaries all sit together, in a large open room. Seven of them smoke, and all seven have refused to heed the persistent requests of the eighth that they stop. "I'm thinking of quitting the job," the eighth secretary says. "What else can I do? I can't breathe. I can't think. I can't do my job."
She is a nurse at one of the biggest hospitals in the city. "You wouldn't think this would be a problem at a health facility," she says. But it is. In the nurses' lounge, "there is constant warfare between the smokers and the nonsmokers. I've seen friendships break up over it. And there doesn't seem to be anything a nonsmoker can do."
But soon, there might be.
A bill was introduced in the D.C. City Council last month that would make Washington one of approximately 35 cities in the country to control smoking in the work place.
The bill would not ban smoking in the work place. It would shift smoking to well-defined, well-ventilated areas. In the process, for the first time, it would make nonsmoking the norm in Washington offices, and smoking the aberration.
The bill recognizes what we have come to know in recent years: that smoking is harmful not only to smokers, but also to nonsmokers who are exposed to "second hand smoke." But health is not the only aspect of office life that the bill would improve. By shifting smoking to designated areas, the bill would increase productivity by decreasing the kind of silly, wasteful conflict that the firefighter, the secretary and the nurse endure daily.
It's a bill whose time has come. It's a bill that I'm going to follow here in the column, and support vigorously. It's a bill that deserves to pass.
The bill is called The Clean Air in the Indoor Workplace Act of 1985. It would allow smoking in:
* Offices occupied exclusively by smokers.
* Offices where nonsmokers agree to let smokers smoke.
* Factories and warehouses (except where conditions are close and ventilation is poor).
* On stage, during theatrical performances.
* In private offices at home.
* In federal government offices.
But under any other circumstances, D.C. employers would be required to establish "smoking zones." Smokers would have to leave their work stations and go to the zones if they want to smoke. Furthermore, any nonsmoker could object to smoking conditions at any time, even after a "smoking zone" is established. The nonsmoker's rights must prevail in such disputes, or smoking will not be allowed in that work place at all.
The legislation also requires that smoking zones be set off by barriers, and be well-ventilated. Penalties for smokers who refuse to comply are the same as those already in effect for disregarding no-smoking signs: between $10 and $50 for the first offense, and between $50 and $100 for all subsequent offenses.
The bill, D.C. Bill 6-213, was introduced by councilwoman Hilda Mason. It is similar to a bill she introduced last year, which died in committee. But Mason thinks this one may pass.
"I haven't had the kind of negative reaction I had last time," she said, in an interview at her District Building office. "Not many Jane and John Does testified against it last time, and I don't think I've heard of any who want to this time.
"I just hope that people who support the bill will let the council know about it . . . . Everybody should want to protect the health and safety of everybody else."
But, mindful of last year's failure, Mason has trimmed back the scope of this year's bill considerably. It does not require employers to spend any money to build, label or set aside "smoking zones." It does not require that no-smoking signs be posted throughout offices. It says nothing specific about restrooms, lunchrooms or "junk food" rooms. And it does not deal directly with the question of smoking in D.C. restaurants.
The bill's language says that "retail businesses" would be affected. But most restaurants serve alcohol, and smoking is expressly permitted in "taverns" under existing D.C. law.
Which law would apply to restaurants? "We left that to be decided in committee ," said Janet Keenan, Mason's legislative assistant. "We're toying with the idea of amending it on the floor," said Mason. Still, it's a big loophole -- and a big if.
Nevertheless, Mason says she is "optimistic. All the bill says is that you have to set aside a room somewhere. I don't see a tremendous amount of expense or unfairness."
But others do. Many others. Tomorrow: a look at the politics of Bill 6-213, and at the opposition.