Werner H. peterke, a 46-year-old former federal employee, says his work environment gave him chest congestion, coughing fits "that turned me inside out," sore eyes, vomiting and other symptoms that forced him to quit work and entitle him to employee compensation payments.
The office of federal employee compensation agreed with him and granted him about $700 every two weeks in compensation in a case which his lawyer, and others, believe may set a precedent.
Peterke's was not the conventional case of a factory worker exposed to dangerous chemicals. He was a white-collar employee in the Social Security Administration's Baltimore offices and he blames his miseries on the cigarette smoke that wafted his way from the desks of his fellow workers.
Peterke is one of a group from several American cities who took their fight against tobacco smoke to court here last week. They want to force the government to allow smoking only in designated areas of federal buildings and to improve ventilation to keep smoke from drifting into nonsmoking areas.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court by more than two dozen persons who claim they suffer physical ailments caused by tobacco smoke in their federal offices, and also by three organizations - the Federal Employees for Nonsmokers Rights, the Social Security Adminstration Group's Committee on Tobacco Smoke, and the Group Against Smokers' Pollution (GASP).
Spokesmen for the plaintiffs said they had been given the "runaround" by federal agencies and by the White House when they sought relief through other channels, such as letters, grievance and procedures and the like. Part of the problem, they believe, is that "most of the people who make the decisions are smokers."
The plaintiffs work for the Departments of State, Defense; Health Education and Welfare; Labor and several smaller agencies, in cities in Montana, Utah, Florida and Louisiana, as well as in the Washington D.C. area.
Peterke's case appeared to be the most remarkable in the group. He said his symptoms had grown steadily worse since he joined the agency in 1972 and became almost intolerable in 1975, when he was put in an open office space "surrounded by smokers." His doctor diagnosed his conditions as allergic bronchitis, or asthmatic bronchitis, he said.
Peterke said he eventually used up all his sick leave and, as a "compromise" between his physical needs and his economic needs as a father of four, working only half time.
Peterke, who worked in Social Security's office of research and statistics, was granted employee compensation pay amounting to 75 per cent of the salary he lost as a result of his ailments.
On June 10, he stopped work entirely. "I want to go back," he said, adding that he hopers the lawsuit will make that possible.
William Wright III, a coworker of Peterke and head of the Social Security Adminstration employees' group involved in the law suit, said, "Its pathetic what they've done to this man. He's a Grade 13, and they are paying him not to produce."
Joel Joseph, the Washington lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, said he thinks Peterke's case is a precedent for the awarding of employee compensation on the basis of symptoms related to cigarette smoking.
A spokesman for the office of employee compensation in the Department of Labour said there was no way to tell whether there have been others, because there is no specific breakdown on smoking-related disabilities.
He would not predict the implications for other employees who might wish to press for compensation on the same grounds. Each case is decided on its merits, he said, with forms to be filled out by both employer and doctor. "We would probably not approve a claim if the supervisor said the circumstances described by the claimant were false," he said.
George Failla, executive officer of the Social Security office in which Peterke worked, said the policy within work areas is that there are no designated smoking or nonsmoking areas, but "we try to accommodate people where possible without disrupting work."
Failla said the agency's health and safety officials had been meeting with the organized nonsmokers to reach an accommodation, but 'I don't know that cost and other practical considerations would permit the agency to completely satisfy them."
An offical of the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration said the agency has "no standards per se" on cigarette smoking or its "side stream" effects on nonsmokers.
OSHA, which has set standards for components of cigarette smoke such as carbon monoxide and nicotine, has performed tests in response to employee requests, but found that the components never exceed established limits, the officals said.
Richard Vawter, a spokesman for the General Services Adminstration (GSA), which manages federal buildings, said, "GSA has made a significant indication that it is in favor of restricting smoking in certain areas." He said regulations call for no smoking in elevators and conference rooms and some cafeterias, but that it is up to personnel in the buildings to enforce them. "It's a definite problem."
The nonsmoking group contends the government fails to enforce existing regulations. "There will be a conference room with a "No Smoking" sign on the wall and ash trays on the table," Peterke said.
The federal employees' suit has parallels in other forums. In a New Jersey case, for instance, a woman took her employer, the telephone company, to court on the grounds that she was allergic to tobacco smoke and had the right to work in a smoke-free environment. A Superior Court judge in Atlantic City upheld her position last December and she is now working in a smoke-free environment, according to a phone company spokesman.
"I just want people to realize that smoking is the one form of comsumption that forces all those around toshare in it, whether they like it or not," Peterke added.