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posted: 3/31/2013 5:30 AM

Complain if chemicals at work bother you

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  • Federal agencies devoted to occupational health and safety have noted that office equipment can release chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, which may be irritating or even toxic, depending on concentration and length of exposure.

      Federal agencies devoted to occupational health and safety have noted that office equipment can release chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, which may be irritating or even toxic, depending on concentration and length of exposure.
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Q: Recently my department moved to a different work space, and I've been sitting in a cubicle two feet from a large-capacity printer. Almost immediately, I noticed the constant smell of toner and chemicals, which has given me daily headaches. I have never raised a fuss about anything at work and am generally a conflict-avoidant person. But breathing in chemicals 40 hours a week is not OK with me.

The easy fix would be to move me (not possible at the moment) or the printer to another location. It's not even my department's printer. I've talked to people, trying to find a solution -- they don't know where to move the printer, and, of course, others don't want it next to their cubicles. The administrator agreed to turn off the printer temporarily. I've felt much better, but I have no idea what will happen next.

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To make matters worse, while the printer is off, people in the department assigned to that printer are now having to walk a bit farther to another one. They complain to people in my department and confront me about it. I stand my ground politely, but I'm flabbergasted as to why this is such a big deal. Any suggestions on how to respond?

A: "I dearly regret the inconvenience I've caused you," in your wheeziest Victorian-heroine-perishing-of-consumption voice.

Your perambulation-averse co-workers may think the pain is all in your head. I don't. Regarding indoor air quality, the federal agencies devoted to occupational health and safety have noted that office equipment can release chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, which may be irritating or even toxic, depending on concentration and length of exposure. The good news, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is that the concentrations generally found in office work environments fall far below limits set for industrial exposure. Furthermore, a chemical's odor doesn't necessarily correlate to health risk.

But it sounds as though you are sensitive to whatever concentration of chemicals the printer is emitting. So don't back down. Direct your boss to information published by NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, get checked by a doctor, and keep (politely) making a stink until this is resolved. You might want to try enlisting the gripers in your cause. When they confront you, say: "I've asked about moving me away or moving the printer closer to you, which would solve both our problems. But I'm being told that's not possible. You'll have to ask (whoever can get this fixed) about it."

With luck, the company will buy them a low-emission printer. Then, they can turn to griping about learning to use it.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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