an employee made an anonymous complaint to OSHA — how can I stop it from happening again?

A reader writes:

I’m a manager of a retail store with 30 employees. In January, we refinished the floors in one department where six employees work. We were closed the appropriate amount of time (as recommended by the painter) and when we had employees back in the department to reset there was an odor, but for the majority of employees it was tolerable. We had the exterior doors open sporadically and purchased extra fans. No one asked to be reassigned to another department, which would have been easy to do, as employees move from floor to floor and department to department regularly.

During this time, anonymous complaints were filed with OSHA and BOLI. They were without merit, and after a lot of stress, paperwork, and time, we were not fined and were told we acted appropriately in our floor refinishing. It was a learning experience for me, but completely unnecessary and put a lot of strain on the entire staff.

It was anonymous, so while I don’t know who filed it, I have a guess. One employee was obviously very unhappy about the smell, but did not appropriately communicate with me on this. She was passive aggressive, snarky, and tried to pressure other employees who did not have issues to make complaints. She seriously compromised the integrity of the department by continually leaving all the exterior doors and windows open in freezing weather, in direct violation of written direction and store protocol. I tried moving her to other departments, but it did not help. She pressured employees who were fine with the smell to “assert their rights.” It was very disruptive, and her coworkers were very uncomfortable. At the suggestion of upper management, I did not push her too hard since we assumed the complaints were made by her, and did not want to invite further citations, even if they were without merit. Eventually the smell went away and things went back to normal.

We are doing the same floor treatment in a different part of the department she works in. Obviously we are legally allowed to do this as OSHA threw out the complaint, but I’d like help on how to deal with the complaining employee. I am sympathetic to the fact the smells affect people differently, but since the smell is a non-issue for me, I can’t be a mind reader for employees who cannot advocate for themselves! Do I simply move her and hope for the best? What if she wasn’t the complainer and it was another silent unhappy worker?

You’re right that you don’t want to squelch her  — if for no other reason than that you could end up running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, which requires you to allow employees to talk to each other about working conditions. But also, you don’t want employees to feel like they’d be punished for reporting bona fide concerns or that you’re trying to avoid outside scrutiny. Plus, if someone is reacting poorly to the smell (and as you note, different people have different sensitivities), you want to make sure that you hear about it and can find a solution.

Your best bet, I think, is to talk to everyone as a group before this next floor treatment begins. Lay out what they can likely expect and what your plans are for minimizing the impact, and then lay out options for people who are bothered by the smell. Have a clear process that people can follow to ask to work elsewhere for the duration of the project, or whatever other options you can offer. Also, explain why you’re doing the work in the first place, and apologize for the smell and inconvenience; being human and apologetic about this stuff will take you far with most employees.

Handling it this way will (a) preemptively address the things your employee might otherwise complain about, and (b) make the rest of your staff less likely to be sympathetic to disruptive complaints, since they’ll see that you’re handling it well.

{ 306 comments… read them below }

  1. KayDee

    I would suggest thorough documentation of the process outlined in the answer. If this person files a complaint again you can easily show that you addressed everything ahead of time and save yourself a bunch of stress if the OHSA comes knocking on your door.

  2. MousyNon

    And adding one thing–some people are considerably more sensitive to this sort of thing than others (e.g. I get migraines, and I know the smell of paint, even within “legal limits,” would send me into a pain tailspin), so giving people the option to adjust their schedule, swap shifts, or take personal days when the smell is the strongest would certainly go a long way as well.

    1. YandO

      Yes, this!

      It’s important to remember that the smell is not just uncomfortable, for some people it can cause a week of severe pain.

    2. jhhj

      The smell of paint doesn’t bother me significantly. However, the smell of febreeze absolutely causes a lot of pain. (This is a problem with my sister, not my job.)

      So if the problem is that one person finds the smell intolerable — this is reasonable! — you start off in advance saying that you are going to be painting again, this is what you are going to do, this is what you can’t do (leave doors open), and options for people who find the smell difficult include x and y (shift changes, department changes, etc). If any employee finds the smell difficult and has another way they would like the problem mitigated, they are welcome to come to you and you will work with them to find the best solution for everyone.

    3. blackcat

      I’m INCREDIBLY sensitive to certain stuff like this, I really, really second this. I cannot tolerate it. At all. When I lived in an apartment and a neighbor three doors down refinished their floors, I spent 12 hours puking in a hotel room and couldn’t return home for 5 days. It was NOT FUN.

      Giving employees as much notice and letting them change their schedules (possibly offering some paid “sick” time that doesn’t count against their usual sick time) would be a nice way to accommodate people who suffer like me.

      1. QAT Contractor

        If you offer paid time off to some employees because the smell affects them, you have to offer it to all employees. If you don’t, the ones that get the time usually don’t keep it under the rug and others that didn’t have the time will get wind of it causing them to be resentful.

        As the OP stated, they were closed for a length of time based on what the painters told them. I know smells linger (especially paint, varnish and epoxy type smells) but offering additional time off to select people is not the right solution.

        It does sound like the last floors that were done happened in the winter time, but the upcoming work seems like it would be done in the spring/summer. Much easier to leave windows open to help air out the building, providing they can leave them open.

        I would suggest trying to plan these projects for mid-spring or mid- to late fall when temperatures are usually more tolerable with windows open.

        1. Bwmn

          As opposed to extra sick days, I wonder about giving the option to use 1/2 sick days. Not extra sick days, but that management will consider the use of sick days in regards to the smell to be appropriate. I am someone who’s incredibly sensitive to paint/poxy smells – and for me in addition to other options, one issue I find is that while I may be fine for a few hours, 8 hours would be impossible. So two days of working half days (while using half a sick day) would help me out.

          1. QAT Contractor

            I think that would be perfectly acceptable from an employer perspective (I don’t get sick days, just a PTO bucket for whatever). But, playing devil’s advocate, I could see the employee being upset that they have to use one or two of their limited supply of sick days because of an issue caused by the employer.

            It’s not an easy situation to be in to find a solution that works for everyone and doesn’t hurt productivity.

        2. Jessa

          Not necessarily. If it’s offered as a reasonable accommodation to someone who has a medical issue (asthma, migraines, etc.) due to the procedure being done. I can pretty well handle paint fumes, but rug cleaner OMG chokes the heck out of me. I make it very clear to bosses that I’m willing to use sick time or holiday pay but I must be exempt from the “you need to give us x notice,” clause if they do not give me that much time before telling me “Oh tomorrow we’re doing the rugs.”

          If the company is willing to pay someone with an issue, independent of whether they have sick pay or not, because the company decides that “it’s not reasonable to penalise ill person with accommodation by taking away their sick or holiday time for something we’re doing to them, that they have no choice about,” that’s not going to be something they have to give to every single employee.

          1. QAT Contractor

            I agree they don’t HAVE to, but there will be employees that get upset about that benefit that someone got that they didn’t even though they are (the same role, more years of experience, are a better worker, ).

            Then the next time something happens that is even a minor inconvenience such as the paper is now 2 shades brighter or something, they suddenly have an issue that is medical in nature.

            I’m not saying it’s the right way of thinking, it’s just things I’ve seen happen with people.

            1. Burlington

              For real. I think that if people got paid sick leave because of the smell, you’d suddenly find 3/4 of your staff has an issue with the smell, and you suddenly don’t have coverage.

              Unpaid sick leave would not have the same issue, I’d think.

              1. Jessa

                I agree there could be issues, but as someone with breathing issues, I should not be financially penalised because I am medically not able to be in the building when others are. And the fact that I have sick leave does not negate the fact that I need it for when I am ILL, not when my company forces me out of the building through no fault of my own. I maintain that if I have to I will use it, but as an accommodation it’s not the rest of the staff’s business if I am not made to. Or am given the opportunity to make the hours up, or trade shifts or something else. This is usually a rare thing. They do the carpets once or twice a year, they paint once every x years. It’s absolutely not outrageous and the fact that others would be bothered that someone gets a reasonable accommodation for a documented medical issue should not be a bar to that accommodation being offered.

                This is not the same thing as people complaining, this is someone who can document a PROPER request for a reasonable accommodation, which is a different kettle of fish.

                1. QAT Contractor

                  Totally agree you should not be financially penalised, nobody should due to a legitimate health issue. There are typically many solutions to the problem like moving to a different department, which I assume has some sort of barrier from the painted area, or making up the hours as you have suggested.

                  Floating time off with the expectation that the hours will be made up is a pretty fair solution to me. I don’t want to miss out on the pay and would prefer to not have to use my PTO because of something I didn’t have control over; however, this isn’t always possible depending on the job.

                  Having to do proper documentation (example: doctors note) is probably the closest form of proof of a health issue, but it’s silly to enforce. There should be good faith between employer and employee and when the employee says they are ill, it should be believed without question. Unless of course there has been documented cases of employees abusing the “I’m sick” excuse (which, again, is hard to proove short of catching them out at a baseball game in perfect health haha).

    4. Case of the Mondays

      This reminds me of a funny (in retrospect) fight I had with my dad as a teenager. He was fixing a broken pool pump with some fiberglass epoxy that is normally used on boats. He asked me to help him. I was but started feeling sick from the smell. I told him I was getting dizzy. He thought I was lying to get out of the work. My dad is a chemist and the safety technician for his office. He told me people work inside the hulls of boats with it with no ventilation and that it is perfectly safe. It couldn’t possibly be causing me to feel dizzy. I plead my case a few more times to no avail. About ten minutes later, I vomited and passed out. My mother was FURIOUS. “She told you it was making her sick!!!” My dad even pulled the MSDS to prove it was safe but I just had some weird adverse reaction to it.

          1. Case of the Mondays

            Yup. That’s my dad. I got something in my eye at work once and when I mentioned in conversation later he said “well, did you use the eye wash station?” I work in a law office. We don’t have an eye wash station. I was promptly gifted a bottle of eye wash with an eye cup. I actually did bring it to work. You never know, copiers have ink mishaps sometimes.

            1. Gloria

              How about an incident report, did you have to fill one of those out too?
              A mask respirator could have fixed that problem. :)

      1. manybellsdown

        I have a similar reaction to the smell of plain old rubbing alcohol. I don’t know how much of it is physical, and how much is psychological, but I sure try to avoid it!

      2. Jessa

        Just because it is safe does not bar people from getting ill from it. Every bit of the paint in the above example is safe. Every bit of rug cleaner that puts me out is safe. Of course the stuff used on boats is safe. Safe does not mean that someone with an illness, or a weak stomach or a breathing problem will not be troubled by it. It just means that in general use it won’t poison someone or cause them to get cancer or another disease. It does not mean that it has zero effect on people.

        1. Zillah

          Safe does not mean that someone with an illness, or a weak stomach or a breathing problem will not be troubled by it. It just means that in general use it won’t poison someone or cause them to get cancer or another disease. It does not mean that it has zero effect on people.

          +1000. This is something that people frequently overlook when something is declared to be “safe,” but it’s a big deal.

        2. Not So NewReader

          Last I knew, the word “safe” did not have a legal definition. If it says “safe” on the label that does not mean that much.

          1. fposte

            The closest I can think of is the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe,” which is a pretty cagey way of putting it.

          2. Jessa

            I wasn’t talking about “safe” on the label, I was talking things that on the materials sheets are considered safe in general, proper usage. IE this product used in ventillated area, or that product used with safety goggles, gloves, etc. or whatever directions are required on the label.

      3. Jazzy Red

        I think it’s terrible that your father wouldn’t believe that you getting sick. What kind of parent doesn’t even care when their child complains about feeling sick? Pulling the MSDS to “prove” his point shows crass insensitivity at the very least. He sounds like a jerk to me.

        1. Laura Renee

          Speaking as someone whose father was actually an asshole: I didn’t get that vibe from the story. It’s not at all uncommon for every kind of kid to plead illness to get out of work (no idea if Case of the Mondays was a rare exception, in which case it would have been truly outrageous for her dad to suspect her for that). And pulling out the MSDS *is* insensitive, but very common, I think, to the type of dad with a legalistic mindset. Also he may have been doing it to defend himself from his wife’s ire, heh.

          Anyway, I find it better to give all strangers’ family/parenting stories the benefit of the doubt.

          1. AnonAnalyst

            Yeah, to honest I got the “brilliant-but-lacking-common-sense” vibe, one I’m also familiar with as it seems to afflict several members of my family. They are all absolutely brilliant and well-regarded within their professions (chemistry and engineering, mainly), but almost completely lack any type of what other people would consider to be common sense (i.e., that your recent exposure to the chemical might really be making you sick). I can (and have) had conversations with them that have gone a similar way, like they just couldn’t fathom this particular outcome as it is not pre-indicated in the data. It’s not malicious; it’s just the thought process.

            It could just be because I’ve had some similar experiences, but I actually found this story pretty entertaining.

      4. V.V.

        Only because I am being a nit-picker, (I want to be clear I am not arguing with the spirit of your comment or dissing your Dad) depending on the area, people cannot just work inside the hulls of boats without ventilation, with or without epoxy.

        Such circumstances will many times constitute a “Permit Required Confined Space,” since they often have limited access, a potential for a hazardous atmosphere, and are not designed for continuous human occupancy. I will admit though that my experience is limited to ag and shipwork (both can be stricter), so I cannot speak to your father’s experience; however, the contractors I dealt with were very meticulous about their daily inspections and permit filing as per OSHA regs.

    5. Valar M.

      Yep. We had the floors redone at my work and it made me incredibly sick – constant migraines, and cost me a small fortune in doctors bills, not to mention days in bed. I kept my mouth mostly shut though because of letters like OPs. I don’t want to be the complainer. The few times I said something, people just kept saying “well it doesn’t bother ME” or “its well within the limits”. Well that’s fantastic, but it’s still making me sick and now I’m in the awkward position of negotiating my real health concerns with your belittlement of the issue. Ugh.

      1. Laura Renee

        That’s awful! There is a HUGE difference between telling your manager about your very real health issues, and inciting OTHERS to complain! You’re not doing any of the latter. I really hope you can find a way to make this clear to your employers.

  3. YandO

    Strong smells, of any nature, can and do give me migraines. So, that situation would be a huge deal for me.

    However, as long as I see you are doing your best to accommodate my sensitivity, I would in million years report or file a complaint.

    Just be kind and open. Invite employees to talk to you.

  4. TNTT

    And remember, while responding to the OSHA complaint was likely stressful for you, it was not unnecessary. OSHA is a legitimate avenue for your workers to attempt to assert their rights, even if it turns out that you were right and they were wrong. Just because you weren’t fined doesn’t mean the complaint was frivolous.

    I think there’s great advice from MousyNon above about offering some options so people feel like they have another avenue before pursuing an OSHA complaint.

    1. Anna

      It is a legitimate avenue, but when using these options people should also be aware of whether or not their issue is personal or an actual OSHA level violation that can cause harm to the complainer and other people. This doesn’t pass the smell test (pun intended) on whether or not a valid complaint should be filed. It sounds more like the employee filed a complaint out of retaliation and it costs money and resources to conduct an investigation. So while OSHA should exist and has a reason to exist, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be used as a first line for a personal issue.

      1. TNTT

        But, the point of OSHA is to do the investigation to determine whether it is an OSHA level violation. That’s their job.

        1. Anna

          That is their job. My point is that employees, this one included, should know whether or not it’s a personal issue or an actual safety issue that should be addressed. This doesn’t sound like a person who has a good grasp on that distinction and filed a complaint because she was annoyed by what she decided wasn’t enough being done. Did she talk to management first? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like she make crappy comments expecting management to jump up and take them seriously and when that didn’t happen decided she’d show them because clearly she knew a violation was occurring. Except it wasn’t.

          1. Mike C.

            When an employer doesn’t appear to take safety issues seriously, an employee should report them to OSHA.

            1. TNTT

              Exactly. And, to Anna, as ism pointed out below, there is no requirement that she have a conversation with management before she reports what she *perceives* to be an actual safety issue to OSHA. It’s her right to bring it to them to make that determination at any point where she feels like her workplace safety is being jeopardized.

              I know there are sentiments against people who resort to the legal system “early and often” to resolve workplace issues. But it is there for a reason, and it’s not always a symptom of passive aggressiveness (passive aggression?) or weakness. This employee is asserting her right in a completely legal and appropriate way.

              1. Valar M.

                Yes, and if I knew my manager felt the way OP does (justified or not) and that tone came across when I expressed my concerns, I’d probably go to a third party for help.

            2. IndieGir

              Except in this case, management was trying to take her concerns seriously — they tried to move her to other departments to minimize her discomfort. It may not have satisfied her but they weren’t ignoring her issues.

                1. Jessa

                  Exactly, maybe someone else sick of the employee complaining said to themselves, maybe she has a point? And made the call.

                  Also, even if the employee is being passive aggressive (some people have been taught in prior jobs that outright complaining is bad and a fireable offence,) the employee should have been brought in and talked to directly and specifically. “I hear you’re complaining about x. This is what we want to do for you about x. Is this enough or do you need something else done ? And we want you in the future to come directly to management when you have an issue like x. It is NOT appropriate to simply gripe around the building about this. Management cannot help you if you do not directly tell us what is wrong.” And mean it. I mean do not then wave off the employee if she comes and tells you about a problem.

                  Because it’s not the OSHA thing (which may not have been THAT employee,) it’s the “do not go whinging all over, instead of coming to management,” thing. It’s the poor morale the employee is causing rather than fixing the problem. This is a behaviour that has to stop. Of course the employee can talk to anyone she wants about work conditions, but it’s unreasonable to gripe before trying to get the thing fixed.

                  And don’t blame the passive aggressiveness, not only do some jobs push this on people, a lot of people have been socialised like that, especially in some cultures, those that present as female. It’s very ingrained in some places that you do not ever, ever, go and make a direct, specific complaint.

                2. I'm a Little Teapot

                  +100 to Jessa’s observation that some people have learned from previous jobs that complaining can be a fireable offense. A lot of what looks like passive-aggressive behavior is self-protection (and not just in the employment world).

              1. Tab

                Maybe. We’re only hearing one side of the story. It’s probably slightly more complicated than that.

          2. Lola

            How are the employees to know “whether or not it’s a personal issue or an actual safety issue that should be addressed”? That determination is made by OSHA. Otherwise, there would be zero need for OSHA investigations.

            1. Anna

              If none of us were able to determine whether or not something was an actual safety issue and not just something that we are personally having issues with, OSHA would be a lot busier.

              1. Lola

                You think your personal assessment is as good as an OSHA investigation? In that case, you might have a goldmine on your hands.

          3. Anonsie

            If you believe the employee who put in the complaint (which could have been anyone, not just the one who complained out loud) really did believe they were reporting a violation, how is it inappropriate behavior? How would an employee know whether the fumes they were smelling were entirely safe or not?

          4. Ann Furthermore

            Yes, this is how I read it too. The fact that she was not only complaining, but violating store policies by propping doors open, and then trying to get people wound up by urging them to assert their rights, makes me think that this is someone who had an ax to grind and thought that this would be a great way to cause trouble. And mission accomplished — it did.

            1. Mike C.

              That “axe to grind” could have been “my management doesn’t take my safety seriously”.

              1. Ann Furthermore

                But there was no evidence to support that her management didn’t take safety seriously. Assuming that what the OP said is true, it sounds like they did everything they could to minimize the impact the fumes. If you read the update below, the OP says that this person even went so far as to come in on her days off to prop open windows and doors.

                1. Mike C.

                  It doesn’t matter if the OP/management/whomever was being safe (and I agree that things seem fine) if the employees don’t believe that they are safe or that their concerns aren’t being heard and taken seriously.

                  Some may scoff at the idea of “a culture of safety”, but following the directions on the back of the box is only the first thing an employer should be doing. Safety needs to be a two-way discussion where input and issues are discussed openly and addressed in a meaningful way.

                2. Ann Furthermore

                  Your wording “culture of safety” makes me think that we may work for the same very large company. And I agree with you — safety is everyone’s job.

                  I just don’t think that this person was motivated by safety. I think she used safety as an excuse to stir the pot, and I base that on the OP’s letter and additional comments. Trying to get everyone to “assert their rights.” Insisting on coming in — on her days off — and propping open the doors, even when the people actually working didn’t want them opened. In short trying to get everyone as worked up as she was, to the point that other employees were very uncomfortable and it caused quite a bit of discord.

                  If she had come to the OP and said, “I realize that you’ve been making accommodations for me, but I’m still reacting pretty badly to these fumes. Moving me to another department hasn’t helped. What else can we do about this?” and the OP told her to suck it up and deal with it, then yeah…I would say that she was motivated by safety. I would also say that she had legitimate cause to think that her employer didn’t take her safety seriously.

              2. Hlyssande

                I agree with you on this. At my little brother’s previous workplace, in addition to serious double standards and unfair treatment, they had multiple major safety hazards and threatened employees that anyone who made OSHA complaints would be terminated. They simply didn’t care.

        2. Observer

          Yes and no. There are many situations where it’s not clear whether there is a legitimate safety or health issue to the general population, and that’s OSHA’s job. But, there are other situations where OSHA has to do an investigation, because they HAVE to investigate complaints, but it’s clear that the original complaint should not have been made.

          I agree that being flexible, up front and transparent are really, really good ideas. I also agree that it’s important to understand that some people have more trouble than typical with this stuff, and it’s not malingering. But, it sounds like the LW handled things pretty well and made a good faith effort to accommodate people, while the complainer was not acting entirely in good faith.

          The fact the OSHA found the complain unmerited does not, by itself, mean that it was frivolous. But, the investigation, by itself, does not mean that it was a reasonable complaint, either. Reasonable people can look at the situation and draw conclusions. In this case, I think that the complaint was frivolous.

          But, Alison is right that, aside from the legal issues, you don’t want to give people the impression that complaints in general are going to be dismissed, squelched or treated as frivolous, even if THIS complaint really was frivolous.

          1. TNTT

            You and I weren’t there, you and I aren’t this worker, and you and I really don’t have enough information to determine whether it was frivolous or not.

            1. Observer

              No, we can’t make a conclusive determination. But, we can draw reasonable conclusions. And, just as I cannot say the complain WAS frivolous, I also cannot say it was NOT. Just because something is legal, doesn’t make it appropriate or sensible.

              1. TNTT

                Exactly. And in that situation, I will always encourage a worker to exercise their right to involve an outside party whose job it is to evaluate the problem.

            2. Ann without an e

              If the complainer was truly being reasonable the transfer offer would have been accepted.

              1. TNTT

                As has been pointed out below, the letter writer doesn’t actually know if the transfer-offered employee was the one who reported to OSHA. And, the employee who reported may also have had concerns about the rest of the group, as a single-employee transfer would certainly not solve the problem if the smell was unsafe for everyone.

                1. Ann without an e

                  “No one asked to be reassigned to another department, which would have been easy to do, as employees move from floor to floor and department to department regularly.”

                  If the complainer and/or complaint filer were truly being reasonable a transfer would have been requested.

            3. Anna

              Then there’s no point for any of us to comment on anything because at no point are any of us there.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                Well, I think the key is to not comment as if we know specific facts to be true (like assuming that the employee wasn’t really being snarky or inappropriate), especially when they contradict the letter-writer’s explanation of events. It’s totally fine to say “have you considered X could have been happening?” but “I don’t believe the OP and it was probably X instead” is problematic.

      2. LBK

        I agree completely with Anna specifically because this is a retail setting. An employee lodging a complaint with OSHA out of retaliation sounds par for the course in retail from my experience. I find difficult retail workers are generally much more likely to escalate something up the chain rather than engage their direct leadership, and they’re more likely to escalate if they don’t get the answer they want from their direct leadership. There are a lot more instances of “mom already said no so I asked dad instead” type complaining.

        I agree that in general, this is OSHA’s purpose and that you can’t know if something is frivolous or not unless they say so, but (again, from my experience with difficult retail workers) the odds that she actually seriously believed there was an OSHA violation occurring that necessitated their intervention are low. This was spiteful and backhanded.

        1. Natalie

          This seems like an unfair generalization, and then a big leap to the conclusion that someone is being spiteful and backhanded.

          And for what it’s worth, most of the people I’ve known in retail (especially giant corporate retail) have never had any success escalating things up through their direct line manager. Ages ago when I cashiered, one of my bosses told me to add a service onto a customer’s bill because they didn’t speak English and thus wouldn’t notice or complain. Guess what happened when I reported it?

          1. fposte

            Yeah, I like C Average’s characterization below–I think that’s a really plausible take on the employee’s view. I think the employee was incorrect in her assessment of the situation, but I don’t think that makes her complaint–if it was her complaint–malicious.

      3. Concerned citizen

        It should be noted that even if such an event is in full compliance with OSHA PELs, if the fumes are causing medical issues then this may be under the jurisdiction of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

        That said, if my workplace got an OSHA visit, they’d have a field day. Unguarded machines, CNC machines have interlocks disabled, electrical violations such as damaged wiring and extension cords used as permanent wiring, no lockout-tagout, restrooms not kept in sanitary condition, etc.

      1. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor

        I agree. That initially bothered me when I read the letter. However, I wonder if the LW is fairly assessing the lines of communications he has with his employees. Additionally, I think he needs to be aware that some employees don’t feel comfortable addressing issues in front of the group (at least I’m assuming that he probably addressed it in a group, like in a staff meeting, rather than individually with each employee).

        1. Ann Furthermore

          I see what you’re saying, but just because this person may not be comfortable addressing issues in a large group, or going to management, the solution is not to report the company for OSHA violations. It’s like, I don’t know, reporting your company to the NLRB for denying a vacation request. In this case, it sounds like it was a huge waste of the OP’s time, the OP’s employer’s time, and OSHA’s time.

          I would say that the OP should have (if he didn’t) tell everyone to come to her directly if they were having problems with the fumes, and make it clear that they won’t be inconveniencing her, or be seen as whiners. She could even say what she said in her letter here: that she’s not a person who is really bothered by this kind of thing, so she really needs the people who are to speak up about it and not feel like they have to suffer in silence.

          1. Natalie

            That all may be true, but IMO there’s no way the OP can say anything like that to an employee without giving the impression that they are discouraging legitimate reporting. (And possibly having the actual effect of discouraging legitimate reporting.)

            1. Ann Furthermore

              I disagree. If my manager said, “I know that fumes and chemical smells of can cause very strong reactions like migraines, nausea, and other issues. I’m very fortunate that I don’t react to them in this way, but that also means that I’m pretty oblivious about this kind of thing and I need everyone to speak up if they’re being affected. If I know who’s having problems, it may also help identify areas that need additional ventilation, or need to just be shut down altogether while the fumes subside,” I would not think he or she was discouraging me from reporting. I would think that my manager was saying that safety is everyone’s job, and I need to do my part.

              The purpose of OSHA is to report legal violations, and for violators to be compelled to adhere to the law. It’s not meant to act as a mediator or go-between for employees and employers. It reminds me of so many of the AAM letters and discussions we have here. People complain to their boss about someone, and the first question is to usually ask if they’ve addressed their issue with the person directly. And the answer is usually no.

              1. Zillah

                But I think that situations involving safety are a little different.

                I mean, ultimately, was this employee being petulant? It’s certainly possible, based on the OP’s follow up post. But even so, I think it’s important to treat all safety concerns as valid – if for no other reason than you come off looking like the bad guy to everyone else, regardless of the facts.

              2. Natalie

                Sorry, I worded my comment poorly. The part I think a manager can’t say to an employee is the solution not being OSHA part. That’s going to sound potentially discouraging no matter how it’s worded.

                You’re right that we often advice people here to use their words, and I think we would probably say something very similar if the OSHA-Complaint-Employee had written in. But it’s not exactly helpful advice for the OP, since they can’t (and shouldn’t) attempt to communicate that to their staff.

                1. Connie-Lynne

                  I’d encourage the OP to say something along the lines of: “Last time we did this there was an OSHA complaint made. While we were ultimately determined to be doing things correctly and legally, I recognize that some people may still find the fumes unpleasant or worse. Please feel free to come to me to point out not only Health and Safety violations (so that I can address them early on) but also if you need personal accomodation; regardless of legality, we don’t want our work environment making you sick. And of course, if you believe there to be a safety violation that we aren’t addressing, OSHA is the right course.”

          2. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor

            I wasn’t saying the employee was correct in going to OSHA. The LW asked for advice how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. IMO, fairly assessing the lines of communication between himself and his employees as well as how to improve those is one way to do it.

    2. Green

      You should not penalize or otherwise retaliate against employees who bring complaints on a good faith basis, even if they are ultimately incorrect or the complaint turns out to be unfounded. Here, if the employee felt that it was making them sick, then an OSHA complaint may not have been the best avenue but it was likely done on a good faith basis.

      And you should never try to discourage outside reporting. What you can do is, as Allison suggested, make it a safe place for them to air their concerns and feel that they are being taken seriously and addressed. That goes a long way to prevent unnecessary complaints to regulatory bodies.

      1. Anna

        Nobody is suggesting retaliation or that valid complaints shouldn’t be addressed. What I would discourage is running to a governing body every time you have a complaint. To me, in this specific case, the employee going to OSHA is absolutely no different than a pissed off customer reporting a business to the Attorney General for a perceived affront. It takes up time the OSHA investigators can allocate to other actual more pressing violations.

          1. Zillah

            Right, and I think that telling someone not to bother OSHA because it takes away from “more pressing violations” can often have the effect, intentionally or not, of silencing people who have legitimate concerns because they worry that their concerns aren’t big enough. IMO, it’s a little like telling someone not to complain about sexual harassment because nobody actually touched you or threatened you. That’s just not fair and not productive.

      2. Not So NewReader

        “You should not penalize or otherwise retaliate against employees who bring complaints on a good faith basis..”

        On good faith basis. That is the sticking point right there. We cannot read people’s minds and hearts. If she sincerely believed that the company was trying to kill everyone, then that is her belief. She may have been nasty about it, but if it was her belief then that is that.

        OP is correct in looking for ways to communicate that would lead to a more informed group of people.

        One thing I have seen done is MSD Sheets put in a binder and the binder kept in a common area for all to see. I bet the contracting company can provide those sheets.

        OP, I think that this person (whoever it is) will become apparent to you in a while. I doubt they will stay employed there much longer. This is a person that has absolutely no faith in the company, the systems the company uses nor does this person have faith in their immediate managers. I cannot see how this mindset could help this person retain their job for any length of time.

        1. Audrey

          If she sincerely believed that the company was trying to kill everyone

          I think this is over the top. If she sincerely believed that the company didn’t care if anybody was adversely affected by the fumes, surely that is still a good faith basis for bringing a complaint?

  5. TCO

    Laying out a clear plan and options will help employees feel more comfortable requesting accommodations, but what if the vocal employee still passive-aggressively complains to other employees rather than asking for what she needs in an appropriate manner? You don’t want to come across as punitive by forcing a shift/location change on her that she hasn’t requested, but you also don’t want to let her pressure other employees to point that they’re uncomfortable.

    1. HM in Atlanta

      If you know this is happening, invite the conversation in a non-threatening way. “Hi Jane, I just wanted to check in with you to see if things are going okay? Do you have any concerns about our plan – or suggestions to make it better?” You don’t say, “I heard you’ve been trying to get everyone to complain about this – what’s your problem?”

      You might want to do this with multiple people, because even if you suspect it’s “Jane” that filed the OSHA compliant, it could have been someone else. It could even have been someone outside your company.

    2. Jessa

      You can address passive aggressiveness in the moment, when you hear it you walk over and explain that they need to talk to management ALSO. We’re sorry you think x but we can’t resolve it unless we know. Etc.

      And it is very possible that the employee who called OSHA whether it is this one or another one, really believed that safe or not the fumes were so prevalent that the building should have been closed and the entire thing done at once to get it over with.

      And if the fumes were not venting to the point that they were opening doors all over, then maybe plans should have been made to keep those doors open regardless. Because obviously the venting being done was not sufficient. Maybe industrial fans needed to be brought in to control getting the fumes out of the building.

      1. fposte

        I think it’s a leap to say that “venting done was not sufficient,” though. Venting wasn’t done in a way that satisfied this employee, but I don’t see any reason to consider her to be the standard. And it’s not like you can say that as long as anybody could smell fumes, that’s proof venting wasn’t sufficient; since there’s no fumeless way of refinishing floors, venting helps the fumes dissipate faster, but it’s just about the rate of dissipation–they’re not being eradicated.

    3. Kat

      If the employee still complains to other employees, you sit them down and directly address it. She’s actively working AGAINST the provided solutions and is actively creating a toxic work environment.

      If this is her usual style of handling issues, you work to get rid of her. It’s no longer an OSHA issue, it’s a bad attitude at work.

      1. I'm a Little Teapot

        Getting rid of her wouldn’t be a great idea if you think she complained to OSHA. It would look very much like – in fact would probably actually be – retaliation, which is illegal.

        1. Kat

          No, they need to document the bad behavior and give her a chance to fix it. The employees that are constantly finding fault and sowing discord are the ones you want gone.

          Focus on the behavior and stay factual. They will always hang themselves in time.

          1. V.V.

            But “I’m a Little Teapot” is right. The company is opening themselves up to major problems if they fire or in any way penalize employees over an OSHA complaint. OSHA will bring the hammer down if sanctions are imposed for reporting an unsafe condition. The company also cannot go seeking the identity of the person who made the anonymous complaint, without looking like they are trying to penalize workers.

            As Alison also pointed out: “You’re right that you don’t want to squelch her — if for no other reason than that you could end up running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, which requires you to allow employees to talk to each other about working conditions.”

  6. jag

    Even if the employees doesn’t communicate appropriately, on an issue that might relate to safety, it’s worth calling that person out and asking for comment. If you hear him/her grumbling, say something like “B, please come to me if you are concerned about the painting. I really want to hear what concerns you have and let you know what we’re doing. This is very important – talk to me if you are worried.”

    1. BRR

      I would hesitate to approach that employee. I’m giving the exact opposite advice I would usually give and say give a blanket statement because a) it might feel retaliatory, b) there might be others who just didn’t speak up, and c)the LW doesn’t know for sure who it was.

      1. TCO

        I agree that you don’t want to single employees out for potentially making an OSHA complaint, but I do think it’s fair to have a private check-in with an employee who’s making loud, public comments about anything that is clearly making the rest of the team uncomfortable, whatever that may be. It’s not wise to force any accommodations on her, but I think OP could still make sure to reiterate the options in private and give the employee a chance to be heard in a private setting. If an employee is uncomfortable asking directly for accommodations in front of a group, couldn’t it be considered wise to give the employee a more comfortable setting in which to express her concerns?

        In fact, it might not be a bad idea for OP to check in with every employee one-on-one and/or via e-mail to make sure they have several opportunities to express any concerns or ask for accommodations.

        1. Elysian

          I agree with this – don’t make it connected to the OSHA complaint at all (who knows if she even filed it?), but OP seems to know that at least this one employee has an issue. Regardless of the complaint, OP could pull that employee aside and say, “Hey Jane, I’ve noticed you’ve been opening windows/doors that aren’t permitted to remain open and that you’ve been complaining about the smell. I know this is inconvenient, but the work needs to be done. Is there anything the company can do make the process easier for you?” and then have a discussion about the reasonable bounds that the employer can go to. Who knows, maybe complaining employee has an actual idea about accommodations that might work for her.

      2. fposte

        I’m inclined to agree with this. The OP’s approach in this situation shouldn’t be a response to her private suspicions; this is just the best way to handle something that might be a problem for some of your employees.

      3. QAT Contractor

        The OP knows who the person was that was complaining to other employees to the point of making the others uncomfortable. They don’t know who reported to OSHA.

        Knowing there was someone who was trying to stir the pot, they should have approached them and had the conversation about what was being done to address the situation and whether there were other options or not. It doesn’t mean it would have prevented whoever reported to OSHA from reporting it, but it may have caused the complaining to stop or lessen. That could have potentially had an impact on whoever reported it to not report it, hard to say.

    2. Not So NewReader

      I think something like that should be said in a general meeting and addressed to all. Probably not a bad idea to say it a few times, or make it a habit to say it once a year in a group meeting.

      If you single out one person that person will read that as a threat, no matter how nice you are. But if you say it in front of everyone, that is different. And following this idea along- if you make these announcements make sure your walk matches your talk. Employees will check with each other. “So, Sue you told the boss about the water on the floor in the bathroom. What did he say?” Whatever you said will be repeated, I can tell you that with 100% certainty. This is the stuff that makes or break a boss’ reputation.

  7. BRR

    Some other stuff:
    -Do you feel overall people can come to you with things?
    -I would phrase it as, “In case anybody found they were more sensitive to the work being done than anticipated through the guidelines, please come see me so we can make some accommodations for you.”
    -I would also point out that not all protocols and procedures were followed last time and if people feel they need something to come to you for an accommodation.
    -Be mindful of other employees getting annoyed by her. I’m not sure how to handle that without violating the National Labor Relations Act but I would find it irritating for an employee to keep bringing something up to me that doesn’t bother me (I have a coworker who complains about the ice constantly, guess what? I don’t care and I’m not joining you on your soapbox).

  8. Jeanne

    I don’t know if you can stop anonymous complaints. The kind of employees who go for anonymous complaints rather than direct communication will probably continue to act that way.

    The advice given by Admin is excellent and will help 99% of your employees feel better about working during the project. Good luck!

    1. Snarkus Aurelius

      I can’t tell if you don’t like anonymous complaints, but as someone who gets them on a regular basis, there are millions of reasons why this is an ideal firm of communication.

      Retaliation is the biggest concern. And I have suffered that retaliation. It’s awful.

      Clearly this op had done everything in an ideal way but it’s definitely not always that way.

      1. Laurel Gray

        Strongly agree! At my current employer we take safety very seriously that I could go to my manager/facilities with an issue and it would be addressed immediately with no problem. I consider myself grateful because I have worked in environments where a roof leak was solved with buckets every time it rained, light switches that short and will shock the crap out of you have a taped sign telling you not to touch it…I was young and part time back in those good ol days and didn’t know what OSHA was, if I did I definitely would have made an anonymous complaint. (Once temped in a building where the elevator doors would open a few seconds before the actual car stopped on the floor, dangerous much!?)

        1. Jessa

          This. We had an issue in a building I was in where all the allergic people were getting incredibly sick. Nobody did anything so someone called OSHA and they found metric tonnes of mould (the building had a couple of fish pools and fountains outside, and there were water leaks all over the building, but the leaseholder didn’t want to fix anything.) It got fixed (we moved the company to a different building, at the landlord’s expense.) But seriously, sometimes you have to call. It’s NOT something our company could have done anything about and I’m nearly 100% sure it was management who called OSHA.

        2. Hlyssande

          Sounds like my little brother’s old job where they were actively discouraged from filing OSHA complaints when there were MAJOR safety problems.

  9. jamlady

    MousyNon, I was coming here to say the same thing. I have chronic migraines and most strong smells are instant triggers. I am a very communicable person so, even if it wasn’t explicitly stated that accommodations would be made, I would have requested something anyway (it’s a lot easier for them if I don’t end up passing out at work). However, not everyone feels this comfortable, so I agree that you should have a meeting. Plus, some people may know you would be open to accommodation but they’ll decide to be annoying anyway – a meeting (well-documented) also covers your end with the ability to say “hey, I told everyone what was going to happen and how we were willing to make it easier – it’s not our fault he/she didn’t take us up on it”.

    On a totally unrelated note (but I’m super excited and relieved and MUST share), I received marks back for my thesis today and I have officially obtained my Master’s degree! Whoo hoo!

  10. Bend & Snap

    I’m kind of appalled that the OP wants to discourage OSHA complaints. They’re for the protection of workers–and if your house is clean, so to speak, you have nothing to worry about.

    But having an open door policy about workplace issues is a good way for people to feel like they don’t need to file those complaints. Ideally you would have addressed this with her when she first started complaining about the smell and worked on a solution together. It sounds like she didn’t feel heard or accommodated.

    1. AnonEMoose

      I don’t know if it’s so much that the OP wants to “discourage” OSHA complaints, as that the OP wants to avoid another one about the same issue.

      If it’s the latter, that seems totally reasonable to me, as while I work in a very different environment than the OP does, I have had to help gather information to deal with complaints to government agencies (other than OSHA), and it’s frankly a giant pain and a lot of stress. Particularly when it sounds like the employer didn’t actually do anything wrong.

      1. Mander

        Yeah, my reading was that the LW wants to discourage employees from making another unfounded complaint, not that the LW is trying to stop employees from making legitimate complaints.

        As the letter says, after the investigation they were told they didn’t do anything wrong and were not fined, so it seems to me that it’s more about making sure the employees actually take up any options to move to other departments, etc. rather than just complaining.

        1. Not So NewReader

          I am kind of discouraged that OP seems to be deciding which complaints are unfounded. I hope that is just a misread on my part.

          I worked for a place that “took care” of people who went to OSHA. They were made miserable until they left. That is probably tinting the lenses on my glasses a bit.

          Back to knowledge is power. If people surrounding the complainer know there is no problem, they will tend to squelch the complaints. I know there were times at work where a machine was malfunctioning. It looked like it could go into a dire situation. I asked coworkers who knew more about machinery than I did, what was up. They explained it to me and explained what was going to happen next. Case closed. I felt the problem was under control. My point here OP, is that you are planting seeds, if people around the complainer know what is up, they can reinforce what you just said later in side conversations. So the responsibility is not solely on your shoulders, if you have informed the group.

          1. Mander

            I understood it as OSHA or whoever the authority is that investigated the complaint was the one who said they didn’t do anything wrong, not the OP.

            1. AnonEMoose

              That’s what I understood, too, and based on the later information from the OP, that seems to be accurate. The OP mentions that OSHA did in fact visit the site in one of his/her later comments.

    2. BRR

      I think the issue is that the employee didn’t do anything but file a complaint. Think of it as if the person wrote in and said the floor smells bother me and I tried to open more windows and get people to band together but it seems to only bother me. Alison’s first thing (I’m assuming and I apologize if I’m wrong when speaking for you) would be go talk to your manager and let them know it’s bothering you. She wouldn’t say to start by filing an OSHA complaint.

      1. Kelly L.

        It depends on your work climate and how you believe a whistleblower would be treated. Sure, maybe OP’s workplace is perfectly reasonable and the complainer is acting on trauma from a previous job, or something she saw on TV, etc. But there might also truly be a climate there that discourages people from speaking up. And I don’t know which it is.

        1. Anna

          No, but based on the information we have there’s no reason to assume that speaking up is discouraged. In fact, we have to go with what we’re told and nothing else in this case. Otherwise none of us should be commenting.

          1. BRR

            Exactly. It can be frustrating without knowing more but I don’t think the LW has given us enough to say it’s discouraged or encouraged.

          2. MyFakeNameIsLaura

            I dunno. To me the LW comes off as not particularly welcoming or easy to talk to as a manager, but that could just be because I spent a lot of time in retail and have ingrained biases.

            1. Not So NewReader

              I am trying to work through that myself. It could be that LW is a really good boss. So I think that if LW frames it as “not everyone knows it’s okay to speak up here”, that might be another good starting point to address the issue.
              However, LW, if you have cohorts or upper management that blow off your employees’ concerns that will make your job more difficult. You might be a straight shooter, but you maybe surrounded by jerks for managers.

    3. Observer

      They’re for the protection of workers–and if your house is clean, so to speak, you have nothing to worry about.

      Not really true. These audits take a lot of time and effort, and can be extremely stressful. It’s just the nature of the situation. It’s perfectly understandable that someone wants to avoid an unnecessary complaint.

      It sounds like she didn’t feel heard or accommodated.
      That’s true. But it also sounds like that was her issue, as the OP specifically mentions that they followed the painter’s recommendations, purchased fans and transferred her out of the department for the time that the smell was a problem – in other words that they clearly tried to accommodate people. I do think that employers need to use some common sense about what they can expect from people and be proactive, but you can’t expect them to be mind readers. If someone has a greater than normal sensitivity, it’s on that person to approach the boss and discuss it.

      1. Bend & Snap

        But it also doesn’t sound like they talked to her about it. Putting a fan out isn’t the same as hearing employees who have concerns.

      2. Zillah

        If someone has a greater than normal sensitivity, it’s on that person to approach the boss and discuss it.

        I’m not sure I agree with this.

        If we were talking about something unusual, I would, because bosses can’t be mind readers – it’s absolutely on me to say, “Hey, I have a life threatening allergy to shrimp, it’s really important that there not be any in the building, can you make that clear to people?”

        However, with something like this – where I would argue that some employees being bothered is absolutely foreseeable – I think that it’s important to initiate that conversation. That’s particularly true since this is a retail environment; retail workers often don’t have a ton of leverage to begin with, which makes approaching the boss a lot more intimidating.

    4. Elysian

      I mean, I think its reasonable try to minimize the risk of OSHA complaints just like you try to minimize the risk of litigation. Both are ways for workers to protect themselves and assert their rights, but you don’t want to spend all your time tied up dealing with an OSHA complaint that has no merit just like you don’t want to spend your time dealing with a discrimination lawsuit (for example) that has no merit. It’s fair for an employer to want to minimize the risk of foreseeable but merit-less stuff.

  11. Mike C.

    I’m torn here. On the one hand, OSHA came in, checked everything and found nothing wrong. Good work.

    On the other hand, I’m disturbed that an employee who is trying to report what they honestly felt as a safety issue is being categorized as “passive aggressive, snarky”, bad for “trying to get others to assert their rights” and so on. People aren’t “problem employees” simply because they want to stay safe.

    Every employee has the right to a safe workplace, and becoming upset at an employee who was using legal means to ensure this really unreasonable. Assuming that this particular employee is the one who made the call is also going to land you in trouble – it could have been another employee who felt you wouldn’t take their safety concerns seriously (perhaps after seeing how you treated other employees in this manner?), and if that’s the case, you’re going to find yourself in a workplace culture that doesn’t allow employees to speak up, and people will be injured or worse as a result.

    Take AaM’s advice seriously. You need to make safety a two-way street – employees need to be comfortable coming to you with safety issues and confident that you’ll acknowledge those concerns, make alternatives available and continue to take proper actions.

    Please take this to heart. Where I work, people occasionally die.

    1. Samantha

      The OP did try to address the problem by moving the person to a different department. And why couldn’t that person come to the OP and say, “This smell is really bothering me. What can we do to address this issue?” Is that really that difficult? Unless the company has a reputation for punishing employees who speak up with a concern, which is not indicated in the OP’s letter.

      1. Natalie

        Ah, but it’s not actually certain that the person who was moved and the person who filed the OSHA complaint are the same person.

        1. fposte

          Yes, I think that’s important here. That’s another reason why the OP shouldn’t focus just on placating the in-office complainer but creating a protocol that gives all employees a chance to be accommodated.

      2. Mike C.

        I don’t know, why couldn’t this be addressed directly? Maybe the OP fosters an environment where such complaints are punished. Maybe the employee didn’t know it was an option. Maybe the employee was looking to cause problems. It’s unknown.

        1. Not So NewReader

          Or maybe OP is fine, but her cohorts and upper managers are NOT fine. Maybe she does not realize her people are being treated like crap behind her back.

    2. A Cita

      Just want to clarify–it’s unlikely that OSHA went in and made a site visit. They almost never do that for a first time complaint. They ask the organization to do an evaluation and submit paperwork/report.

      I once worked at a place where an employee made a complaint to OSHA. The managers went on a witch hunt to find who complained. Luckily they were unsuccessful. Additionally. while the report/paperwork was filed, they didn’t do a real evaluation and the problem persisted (it was an air quality issue).

    3. Meg

      There’s really nothing to indicate that the OP treated the complaining employee any differently, so I’m hesitant to blame her for that aspect. And as for the complaining employee, it sounds like they didn’t come to the OP in the first place, hence the “passive-aggressive, snarky” descriptor. You’re absolutely right in that the OP wants to foster an environment where people feel comfortable addressing their concerns, but when an employee doesn’t speak up in the first place it can be harder to do that.

      Alison advises people all the time to address issues directly with their boss because that’s usually the best course of action. If the employee had done that in the first place, this whole situation might have been avoided.

      1. Mike C.

        The problem here is blaming the person rather than the process and environment. If the employee didn’t think there were other options then they aren’t being “passive-aggressive or snarky”, they were trying to stay safe. This is something anyone here would do.

        It’s on the employer to foster an environment where employees can speak up, because they have the power to make such an environment in the first place. If folks aren’t speaking up, it’s on the employer to make that change, not the employees.

        1. Koko

          Exactly. Passive-aggressive would make sense if she tried to bring a civil suit against the company for her suffering. She filed a safety complaint, not a lawsuit.

        2. Meg

          But I don’t see how it’s better to blame the OP for this either. There’s really nothing in this letter to suggest that the OP limited the employees’ options or discouraged any of them from speaking up. If that were true, and the OP was ignoring or belittling the employees’ requests, then I would agree with you 100%. But I just don’t see that. From reading the letter, it seems like the OP is trying to handle all sides fairly. In that case, I can see why she felt blindsided by the OSHA complaint.

          1. Mike C.

            I don’t really think the OP is “wrong” in any sense. I just think there could be improvements in how safety is dealt with, and that I was a little bothered by the person who seemed to be concerned about safety being categorized in many negative ways. I want to make sure that bad behavior isn’t being conflated with, “brings up issues relating to safety”.

    4. M

      I disagree. Its one thing to inquire what the standards are if you are genuinely concerned but its another to file an actual complaint. Not all managers are penny pinching orgres seeking to make their employees lives miserable. Its disheartening when you are attempting to do the right thing and others still attempt to cause issues.

      I think what OP has to keep in mind is not to target the loud employee on the off hand chance that it was someone else that filed the complaint. Again if this particular employee has migraines or other issues that make them particularly sensitive to odors the same energy they took to complain to other employees they could have used to talk directly to the manager to request additional accommodations. That’s what makes the person passive aggressive. A preemptive meeting with all in regards to upcoming repairs should help but if this person is like some former coworkers I’ve had then the OP should be prepared for additional calls to be made. Sad thing is once this person continues to waste everyone’s time then authorities will be slow to respond when there IS a real issue.

      1. Mike C.

        I never said the OP was a being cheap or cutting corners, so what exactly are you disagreeing with?

        1. M

          <>

          One’s first line of action should not be to file a report to OSHA.

          So many seem to be taking the side of the employee that didn’t write in. The OP did and based on the facts presented there do not seem to be additional issues that would justify the employees actions.

          1. Natalie

            We don’t actually know what the employee’s action were. OP is just assuming that the complaining one is the one that filed with OSHA.

            1. Anna

              But even if it was NOT the complaining employee SOMEONE did complain and everything being said still would apply.

              1. Natalie

                The only reason to think that the complaint shouldn’t have been filed is that Employee A asked for and received an accommodation. But if it was Employee B that filed the OSHA complaint, everything OP wrote in about Employee A is utterly irrelevant. So we have no idea of Employee B asked for some accommodation and was denied, or had some reason to feel they would be denied, or if some completely different thing is going on.

              2. Mike C.

                You need to look at the processes and environment to understand why this is the case. Is there a culture of safety where these issues are discussed openly and issues are acknowledged in a reasonable manner? Are employees empowered to suggest or make changes to keep others safe? Or is safety never discussed because it’s not like you’re smelting steel here?

                The fact that someone felt the need to file a complaint means that there is a problem – either there is an unsafe situation or the perception of an unsafe situation. Given that the OP seemed to be doing what they needed to for safety, then I suspect the latter. Why is there this perception, and what can be done to change it?

                Simply going after one (or more people) isn’t going to solve your problem in the long term. New people are going to show up, have to deal with the same issues and potentially do the same thing.

                1. Maiden Aunt

                  “The fact that someone felt the need to file a complaint means that there is a problem – either there is an unsafe situation or the perception of an unsafe situation.”

                  Or the problem is a disgruntled employee filing bogus claims to cause trouble. It’s entirely possible the employee was well aware that there was no actual safety concern, they just wanted to cause some hassle for their employer.

    5. LQ

      I agree about being torn. Especially since it does seem like the OP was trying to do the right things about the space and accommodating people.

      I kind of think that an employee who is being snarky and passive aggressive (and depending on the form/frequency/etc of “trying to get others to assert their rights” maybe harassing (not legally) their coworkers) needs to be dealt with as a snarky passive aggressive employee. Regardless of if they are the complainer to OSHA, I’d assume they weren’t and try to have a conversation. But if this is the only thing they are like this about then maybe it’s more legitimate than you are giving it credit for.

      But they kind of feel like seperate issues.

      1. Not So NewReader

        Yeah, I agree. The snark is a whole different issue. The OP actually has two problems here, not one.

    6. Anna

      I don’t think the complainer actually did file a complain because they were concerned it was an actual issue. This is how I read the timeline:
      1. OP lets people know the floor is being refinished.
      2. Refinish takes place; shop follows directions on how long to wait for fumes to clear, buys extra fans to help move out fumes and smell, opens front door to help out.
      3. Everyone comes back to work. There is still a smell, but most employees are fine.
      4. One employee specifically makes snarky comments, says things passive aggressively.
      5. OSHA contacts shop managers to let them know a complaint has been filed.
      6. Shop managers fill out paperwork, have many conversations, go over the recommendations from the company that refinished the floor, verify they followed said recommendations, verify that employees who asked to move to other areas were allowed. Paperwork is sent to OSHA.
      7. OSHA comes back with a determination that recommendations were followed and no actual OSHA violations occurred.
      8. Shop manager has a suspicion about who filed the complaint and is trying to steer clear of another complaint when they refinish another part of the floor.
      The means may have been legal, but that doesn’t make the complaint valid or the complainer automatically in the right for filing the complaint.

      1. Mike C.

        When you start questioning the motives of someone who is concerned about their own safety, you walk down a very dark road. People die when you ignore or dismiss such concerns so casually.

          1. Mike C.

            It doesn’t end with paint fumes, and death isn’t the only harm that can come to someone. The risk is that if safety isn’t taken seriously by employers or employees, if it isn’t discussed openly and honestly, you’ll end up with people hurt and massive costs.

            This ad below is a bit drastic so skip it if you’re squeamish, but it originally aired on Canadian broadcast television. You’ll note they discuss things that the employee and the employer could have done to prevent it.

      2. JB

        But we don’t know, and neither does the OP, that it was the complainer who filed the OSHA complaint. And even if it was, we don’t know that the complainer didn’t think the complaint was valid. There are some people who, even if they have a valid complaint, go about addressing it in a passive-aggressive manner. Their method may not be effective or fair, but that doesn’t mean their complaints aren’t genuine.

        I agree with what Alison and other commenters have said about making accommodations and being open about the process and what options there are.

        1. Jessa

          Also, there’s another issue, just because the thing did not rise to the level of an OSHA violation, does not mean nothing wrong was done, nor does it mean nobody was negatively impacted by the thing. There’s a certain threshold where things become “a violation” things can be wrong or bad without meeting that threshold. Being cleared of a violation by OSHA does not mean nothing wrong was done.

        2. Elizabeth West

          I agree with the advice too. The OSHA complainer (no matter if it was Snarky Employee or not) obviously didn’t feel like he/she was being heard or that the things done were sufficient, which is a problem. But it could also be that the person has issues with bringing stuff up to management–maybe Bad-Job PTSD. If management makes sure to foster an open culture where the employees know they can bring concerns to them and actually be believed / have them addressed, then someone who might have been too afraid to speak up before (regardless of their reason) can do so.

          The snark and bugging other employees is a separate issue. It’s a delicate line to walk–addressing the unpleasant behavior while still taking Snarky’s complaints seriously.

    7. Zillah

      That stood out to me, too. It’s possible that she was passive aggressive and snarky, and if she was leaving doors and windows open after she was specifically told not to do so, that’s absolutely a problem.

      At the same time, though… OP, it sounds like you’re trying to do the right thing, but you’re not an unbiased person in this, and there were a couple points in the letter where I wondered whether things were as clear as you think they were.

      For example, you say that she tried to pressure other employees to complain when they weren’t bothered by the smell. If the employees came to you proactively and said, “Hey, Lucinda is pressuring me to complain when I don’t really have an issue and it’s making me uncomfortable,” great – but if that’s not the case, I’m wondering whether other employees were bothered and mentioned it amongst themselves, but weren’t comfortable speaking to you about it.

      Along the same lines, you say that she left the exterior doors and windows open, which was in violation of written direction and store protocol. Again, if by written direction you mean “Please do not open the doors and windows despite the floor refinishing, only managers can do this,” okay – but otherwise, given that you describe leaving the exterior doors open “sporadically” to deal with the smell, I’m wondering whether you didn’t make the guidelines for opening the doors super clear to your employees. (And, for that matter, why is her having doors open “compromising the integrity of the department” where your having doors open does not? I’m confused about that.)

      Again, OP, maybe this is super clear cut… but those questions did come up to me as I was reading your letter, and I think you should really re-examine the situation to make sure that you’ve got a fair reading on things.

      (For the record, I’m not sure I’d jump to the same conclusion that you have, either – if this employee was comfortable voicing/acting on her concerns, it seems less likely to me that she’d make an anonymous complain than someone who didn’t feel like they could push back at all. It’s possible, of course, but I don’t see the possibility as being as strong as I think you do.)

      1. fposte

        Though I think the new information from the OP about the intra-employee friction sheds some additional light. (I know you didn’t see that yet when this posted; I just thought it was worth noting here that there’s new detail downthread.)

        1. Zillah

          Definitely – though that information really makes me question why the OP’s company decided that the best time to do this kind of work was when there was likely to be very cold weather, which would make airing the place out very difficult, even without the snow/flash floods (which are less foreseeable). And, fair or unfair, that oversight makes me wonder what other oversights happened during the process. :/

          1. fposte

            I don’t see it as an oversight; what they were doing wasn’t a big problem for most people, and there aren’t many times in the year where the issue could be avoided (and good luck knowing in advance when they are!).

      2. Jessa

        It’s possible about the doors that the ones specifically opened by management had someone to watch them and make sure nobody entered who wasn’t supposed to and having open doors that are not watched may be a theft issue. It still doesn’t change the fact that enough doors did not seem to be open to disperse the remaining smell.

      3. Anonsie

        Agreed with all of this. You can’t assume she was unilaterally pressuring people who disagreed with her to kowtow to her complaint. I have seen many, many, many instances where employees were happy to complain behind the scenes but were afraid to say anything to management, and the one who does speak up is assumed to be a dramatic troublemaker. Especially when you’re talking about a setting like retail where a lot of people feel wholly disposable, the willingness to make waves is a lot less common. Even if the one who speaks up is problematic in general, it’s a mistake to assume there is no way another employee could agree with her concerns about the fumes just because no one else actively protested.

        I’m inclined to believe it was more likely to be a different employee that made the OSHA complaint, not the one who was already speaking up. Someone who was bothered but saw something negative or insufficient in the way the one outspoken employee’s complaints were handled and decided to take a different tactic where their identity wouldn’t be known. It could have been anyone, and it would be a mistake to try to guess and base any next steps on that.

        Also, the comments about the doors and windows also stood out to me. At first it says they were left open sometimes to clear the fumes, but then the employee is faulted for leaving them open too much in violation of policy? I would need more details to really understand that one, but it sounds rather innocent on its face.

  12. Development professional

    I also wonder if you aren’t doing your business harm by not doing more to disperse smells and ventilate. This is a store, right? Surely if the smell is bothering any of your employees it’s got to bother at least some of your customers. If it were me, I wouldn’t go as far as saying anything to the store. I would just walk out and go somewhere else. Although the smell might be more troubling to an employee who is in the space for an extended amount of time instead of a customer who is there for a shorter time, a strong or unusual smell will be most noticeable when someone first enters your space. In other words, you probably have customers who are walking in and walking right back out. I get that you probably can’t close the whole store while this refinishing is going on, but maybe your fans and occasionally open doors are not doing enough to mitigate the problem, not from a “legal” standpoint, but for the comfort of your shoppers.

    1. TCO

      It sounds like this area was not yet open to customers–the staff was preparing the area to re-open after a period of closure.

      1. JB

        Not the whole store, though. It sounds like only the one area of the store was closed, and I think DEvelopment professional’s point was that the smell could be drifting out of that one area into the rest of the store, causing problems for customers.

        1. fposte

          But customers are free to leave. I don’t think there’s any way to disperse smells and ventilate that is going to completely remove all outgassing without ever impacting people in the space, and odor dispersal and ventilation can be pretty offputting in their own right during the colder time of year (I wouldn’t walk out for a whiff of polyurethane, but I’d walk out if it was cold in there). I think the choice for something like this is often close outright or lose the occasional customer who reacts to the smell.

          1. JB

            Yes, customers are free to leave, and I thought that was Development Professional’s point, although maybe I’m reading it wrong. Customers are free to leave, and they may well do so, so make sure you are doing all you reasonably can to make sure the smell won’t make customers leave immediately.

            I’m not saying that the OP should do more. I do not have a dog in this fight. I was just responding to TCO’s comment (or how I read it) that because the area was closed, the smell couldn’t have drifted to customers. My reading of OP’s letter was that only part of the store was closed, and so the smell *could* drift to other parts of the store. And that goes back to DP’s point that perhaps customers are being lost as well.

            1. fposte

              But what alternative are you suggesting? It’s never just about what you shouldn’t do, it’s always about what else you’d do instead and how well that would work.

              I think there’s some notion that there was a proper way to ventilate that meant nobody would have encountered any vapors, and a suspicion that the fact that people encountered vapors means that not enough was done. And I don’t think that’s true–there’s no way to have no vapors from refinishing a floor, painting, cleaning, etc. So your choice is just to close–and certainly some locations do when they’re doing a big redo–or to stay open and earn revenue from the customers who don’t have reactions. Most of the time you’re going to be better off with the latter because it’s not going to cost you nearly as much.

              1. JB

                *I’m* not suggesting anything! I’m not saying the OP should close the store. I’m not saying the OP shouldn’t close the store. I’m not saying the OP should have done anything different from what they did.
                Development Professional said: “I get that you probably can’t close the whole store while this refinishing is going on, but maybe your fans and occasionally open doors are not doing enough to mitigate the problem, not from a “legal” standpoint, but for the comfort of your shoppers.”

                TCO’s responded to disagree (or at least that’s how I read the response) about whether customers could be affected since the area was closed. I said I didn’t think the *store* was closed, so, yes, smells could drift.

                Odors drift. That is a fact. Customers may leave because of it. That’s also a fact. What the OP wants to do with those facts is on the OP, I don’t care one way or the other, and I have no suggestions or opinions. I was only trying to clarify facts, not take a position. My comment to “make sure you are doing all you reasonably can to make sure the smell won’t make customers leave immediately” was not my opinion, it was my reiterating what I thought Development Professional was saying. It makes sense, though, that you’d try to not run off all your customers, but what is reasonable to do along those lines I can’t say and don’t have an opinion on.

    2. Natalie

      Somewhat related, but can a non-employee file an OSHA complaint? If so, it could have been a customer, particularly if the smell was really strong and drifting into some other part of the store.

        1. Natalie

          Interesting, I did not know that.

          I could totally see a customer filing this complaint, whether out of genuine concern or some misguided irritation about the remodel or something.

  13. ism

    I don’t know if it’s the LW or Alison who chooses the title: “An employee made an anonymous complaint to OSHA — how can I stop it from happening again?” I’m going to assume the LW titled their question.

    I don’t think “how can I stop it from happening again” is the right question. Do you really want to squash the option for employees to file anonymous complaints? OSHA is there to protect them and receive their complaints. Even if the employee didn’t take her complaint directly to you in the way you would prefer, it’s her right (and the right of any other employees) to file it.

    Maybe it’s just awkward wording and you don’t want to deny your employees that course of action, but you’d just prefer they come to you directly first. It’s not clear whether you hate the idea of anonymous complaints and want to discourage them, vs. wanting to encourage direct resolution as a first course.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yes, I write the titles.

        I think “how can I stop it from happening again?” is reasonable if it means “how can I avoid another OSHA investigation that will end with a finding of no wrongdoing but meanwhile will take time and expense to respond to?” It’s not about discouraging people from reporting when they need to, but about heading it off in a reasonable and fair and open way when you are in fact in compliance and would rather talk openly with people.

    1. M

      You don’t have the right to file a complaint because something is being done in a way that you don’t approve of. Complaints are to be made if something dangerous or illegal is happening. There’s a difference.

      I don’t think the OP is against complaint being made. Its the complaint being filed in spite of OP following all of the rules but since employee didn’t like it they started a process that took up a lot of time only for it to be resolved in the OP’s favor.

      1. Natalie

        Except the OP doesn’t know who filed the complaint. They may have a suspicion, but that’s not fact. Operating on that assumption and thus concluding that this OSHA complain was frivolous is a mistake, IMO.

        1. M

          It doesn’t matter WHO filed the complaint. It was found to be frivolous because the OP had in fact followed all of the rules.

          I think some are assuming that the OP didn’t know what the rules were ahead of time but I’m reading the letter that OP did and in spite of the accommodations a complaint was filed instead of concerns made to management first. I agree with suggestion to make it clear to all that its ok to request if any additional accommodations are needed but it was passive aggressive to go straight to OSHA on the assumption that the OP and the job did not know what the regulations were.

          1. Natalie

            Well, OSHA found that the no action was needed on the OP’s part – that’s different than saying the complaint was frivolous. And all of the discussions about accommodations seem to be discussing the one loudly complaining employee, so it does kind of matter that we don’t know if it was that person.

          2. Zillah

            This is drastically overstating it, IMO – plenty of businesses either don’t know or don’t care about what the regulations are, and many of those that are violating them are not going to stop just because an employee says, “Hey, are you sure this is within the regulations?”

            I can see why the OP is bothered. However, I can also see why an employee would file an OSHA complaint without speaking to management first, and the fact that OSHA said that the OP’s company acted appropriately doesn’t make the complaint “frivolous.”

          3. Anne

            It was not found to be frivolous; OSHA found that there was no violation, based on manufacturer’s instructions and OP’s company’s self-reporting.

      2. ism

        Yes.I’m mainly wondering if the OP phrased it this way, or the admin, and overthinking it either way :) I agree with all your replies.

              1. Not So NewReader

                Uh. Not sure that is an insult if even that was what was meant. Caretakers are perceived as highly responsible and highly trustworthy. They are also perceived as having above average intelligence to process situations from more than one angle.

                I remember reading a CEO of a large company said “You cannot truly lead a corporation. It is too big with too many people. Your best hope is to steer it, similar to a large ocean liner.” Sounds a bit similar to the care-taking concepts, to me.
                Not everyone can steer. Many cannot steer. You steer well, Alison. You know how.

                1. Former Diet Coke Addict

                  I think it’s because on many websites, an admin is someone who moderates posts and generally polices things, as well as doing behind-the-scenes tech things. Alison is the sole content creator, though, which is a bit different from just being a site admin or caretaker.

                2. JB

                  I took it as that made her feel like only the caretaker, not the person who also creates all the content. She wasn’t insulting people who perform that job.

          1. Lore

            I bet autocorrect changed “AAM” to “admin” the first time someone mentioned it and then other people picked it up!

              1. Natalie

                I somehow taught my autocorrect typos. As in, I make some of the same typos so often that it has learned them as words I want, and will “correct” things to total gibberish.

          2. ism

            I was referring to you as the admin there, because my fingers have a bad habit of putting an extra L in your name when i’m typing too fast. Sorry about the confusion.

    2. fposte

      In addition to what M says, I’m going to overparse because that’s what we do around here :-). I think there’s a difference between “How can I stop employees from making OSHA complaints?” and this situation, which is “How can I preclude a second time-consuming complaint on an issue that OSHA has already found to be safe?” I’m with you in being against the first, but I think the second is a reasonable question.

  14. LCL

    Work with floor refinisher company. Ask for a copy of the MSDS and any related information. The MSDS is a chemical information sheet that the manufacturer of the product is required to provide. Share this information with employees. The one misstep I see in the previous situation is that everything was word of mouth. That only feeds the rumor mill.
    As for the complainer, complainers gonna complain. They are good at it because they practice all the time. As a manager, you have to remember sometimes they have a point. They must be listened to on safety issues or perceived safety issues, same as any other employee. The best way to handle them is to address their concerns with evidence. That’s what the MSDS and other documentation is for.

    1. AW

      As long as they’re working with the floor refinisher company, maybe the manager can work with them on limiting the smell. It may be possible that the company can change what chemicals they’re using or the process so that the smell is less intense.

  15. C Average

    I suspect if an objective third party asked the employee whether she’d attempted to get the problem solved by working with management before using the anonymous reporting service, she’d say something like, “Yeah, I brought up many times that I believed the smell was unpleasant and potentially toxic to the employees in the area, and I even tried opening more windows, and the response was always just dismissive eye-rolling. I mean, yeah, the manager offered to move me to another floor. Great–that solves the problem for me. But what about the people who didn’t say anything and didn’t get moved? They’re still exposed to this stuff. I don’t think ANYONE should be working in an area that smells like that. It’s not safe. So I used the anonymous reporting process. That’s what it’s there for, right?”

    So what you need to convey to this person (and everyone else) is this:

    –Although unpleasant to some, the chemicals being used and the odor they create do not pose a health risk to employees in general. This has been confirmed by OSHA.
    –If anyone does find that he/she is more sensitive than others to the smell, he/she should notify management so that reassignment to a new area or other mitigating measures can be taken.
    –General complaining to no one in particular is not considered actionable. If anyone has a problem and wants it addressed, he/she should specifically seek out management and bring up his/her concerns. The door is open and management wants to be aware of any such concerns, but isn’t prepared to monitor loose talk among employees for signs of discontent. These concerns need to be raised in an actionable and professional way to someone with the authority to actually address them.
    –Employees should not attempt to address the problem independently (i.e., by opening doors or windows) without talking to management before doing so. The manager may have a different solution in mind to try first.

    1. Laurel Gray

      I like this solution.

      I think far too often in office environments employees and managers think passive aggressive behavior around an issue is addressing the issue. I don’t think a manager has to wait until a complaining employee comes to them directly before speaking up, I think the snark and side comments were enough for management to directly approach the employee(s) and ask for their opinions. In regards to safety and these kinds of in office renovations going on, it is very important that management has an open door policy when it comes to employee concerns.

    2. Chrissi

      I like this a lot. I think everyone (including the OP) is assuming that she was bothered by the smell and that’s all. If she made a complaint to OSHA, I think it’s more likely that she was concerned about the safety of the chemicals probably because of the smell, which, to me, makes it a valid complaint. Maybe she didn’t trust the management to know or adequately explore whether the chemicals were safe. Regardless, I like this advice on how to move forward from here.

      1. Anonsie

        Exactly this. I’m cynical and all, but I wouldn’t necessarily believe that the environment was safe just because I talked to management and they said x number of days was fine and the remaining fumes were a non-issue. They may be mistaken purely by accident, maybe the flooring company made a mistake or the ventilation wasn’t as expected so the fumes didn’t dissipate they way they were supposed to or whatever. I’ve also been in situations where management swore up and down that the way we were handling whatever chemical or process was the best/safest way only to have it turn out they were completely wrong.

        People keep saying “you should talk to management,” but if you or others are worried or feeling ill or whathaveyou, it’s completely reasonable to want the issues to be looked into further even if management says it’s fine. We’re talking about breathing some sort of industrial fumes (that, don’t forget, were in fact considered something the employees needed to avoid being exposed to at first) which is a little bit of a different problem from your average complaint. Talking it out and looking for alternatives is great for general environmental complaints, but requesting some prompt assessments of safety is pretty damn reasonable when you’re talking about the air people are breathing.

        Now that it’s been established as safe, they can move forward with the individual accommodations for people bothered by the smell.

        1. Natalie

          Plus, as someone else mentioned, just because it’s safe doesn’t mean it won’t affect you.

          I once came into work to find they were in the middle of waxing the floors, something that should have been scheduled to a time when we were closed. The floor wax wasn’t going to kill us right then and there, but it gave me an incredibly bad headache and I was having a hard time focusing (maybe from the headache) which was necessary for my job. I was not allowed to leave because it was “safe”.

          1. fposte

            Yeah, I think that’s important to clarify–that something can affect you and still be safe, and that something can be safe and still affect you. It’s going to be helpful to avoid having a discussion about one when you really mean the other.

            1. Not So NewReader

              I agree. Mushroom, nuts, milk, wheat- those are all deemed safe, except for some people. And could cause death for some of those people.
              I think what MSDS and OSHA says is a starting point not a conclusive decision. Waaay up thread we had a very good example of a poster whose father had an MSDS sheet saying a chemical was safe. Well, it was not safe for his daughter. MSD sheets and OSHA decisions are not gospel, they only refer to the general population in general terms.

    3. JB

      I like this. Even if the OP is correct and the complainer make the OSHA report, and the person is passive aggressive and snarky, it’s generally better in *these* types of situations to respond to the complainer the way you would to a valued, non-snarky, non-problem-causing employee. That way you know you are being fair and treating the person’s complaints as valid. At least for me, asking myself, “How would I want to handle this if the person weren’t a trouble maker” helps me know I’m doing the right thing, and importantly, it helps me do it with a good mindset. Obviously this doesn’t work for every situation, but it does in these kinds of situations.

  16. Katie the Fed

    People file complaints because they feel like nobody is listening to them, and that their complaints are being dismissed. She didn’t do it to get you guys in trouble – she almost certainly did it because she felt like despite the fact that she’d raised it, nobody was taking it seriously.

    The above advice is good. And make sure you’re treating everyone with dignity and respect during this. For many people, a sympathetic ear and management willing to adjust will solve a lot of problems.

      1. JB

        To add, instead of approaching it as “how can we get this person not to complain to OSHA,” think of it as “how can we get this person to feel like she doesn’t need to complain to OSHA.” Alison and several other people here have made suggestions that should accomplish that.

    1. TCO

      I agree with you in general, but there’s no guaranteeing that this employee is reasonable. She very well may be, but we simply don’t know for sure from our limited perspective. If the person really is reasonable, your advice is good. If she’s not… there might not really be any further action OP can take to prevent unreasonable complaints beyond the steps already outlined here.

      1. Natalie

        True, but taking any reasonable steps doesn’t really have any downside. The OSHA-Complaint-Person might remain unreasonable, but other employees will be assuaged.

      2. Mike C.

        This is a bad way to go about it. No one is harmed by having a safer workplace environment even if the employee is crazy (false positive), but the chance of ignoring a reasonable employee will lead to increased harm for everyone involved.

        Safety isn’t like any other decision made in the business world. We’re not talking about profits and blame and everything else we normally discuss here. We’re talking about the lives and well-being of other people.

        You take every complaint about safety seriously unless and until you have hard evidence that the issue is taken care of. End of story. You do not put the lives and well-being of others at risk simply because there is a chance that the complaint may not have merit. People get sick, they lose limbs and even their lives when these issues are ignored.

    2. BRR

      I don’t think the problem was nobody listening to the employee, it was that people weren’t agreeing with the employee.

      Acknowledging I have the benefit of what the OP added below (via Alison).

  17. Natalie

    In general, I would do everything you can mentally do to operate as though you have no idea who made this complaint, because you don’t. Yes, you have a guess, but it’s unwise to proceed as though your guess was a certainty. If you are wrong, you will end up spending too much time focusing on complaining employee, while quite possibly missing some real issue you could and should have been addressing. And even if you are right, it gives the impression that anonymous complaints are not really that and could have a chilling effect on other employees.

    1. some1

      And don’t tell anyone whom you suspect made the complaint. If you had to fire that person for performance issues, they could make a case for retaliation “They fired me because Jane told Wendy that she thinks I complained to OSHA.”

      1. Natalie

        And it’s just generally crappy to pass along things like this. It’s basically gossip, and not even factual gossip.

  18. Employment Lawyer

    Frankly I would consider having a conversation with OSHA before starting the work. You may be able to get some feedback that if you use the same process and materials, in the same building, for the same time frame, you’ll be fine. That can be good security.

  19. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor

    For next time, I think you should address this one-on-one in addition to a group setting. I get that it is more tedious, but some people might be embarrassed by the extra accommodation (even though they shouldn’t be) and won’t want to draw attention to themselves in front of the group.

  20. Meg P

    I don’t mean this to be legal advice, but I do believe that people who report violations under OSHA are protected as whistleblowers – so you can’t act in retribution for their filing of a complaint. I don’t think that’s where OP is going, but it’s important to be aware.

  21. Lamb

    There’s a lot of good advice here about how to handle the people aspect of the problem. You may also want to do more on the smell side.
    – is there more you could do to disperse the smell? (More fans, windows open, maybe in-window fans pointed out to draw out the fumes?)
    – given the hassle with OSHA, could you make a case to higher-ups for keeping closed an extra day or couple days? Along with documenting all of your accommodation efforts this would be a way to show (show employees, show OSHA) that you are trying to deal with the smell issue and keep your employees safe/healthy (even if your true motive is to keep the company out of trouble)

    1. soitgoes

      The employee was reprimanded for opening windows. I think that’s one of the core issues here and why the complaint wasn’t 100% out of line.

    2. Not So NewReader

      Rent some air purifiers? I see odor absorbers sold in hardware stores. I don’t know how well they work, but it would not cost a ton of money to find out.

  22. AnotherHRPro

    OP: If you don’t want employees to go to an outside agency to report concerns, your company should have an internal mechanism that enable employees to report concerns outside of their immediate chain of management. Make sure employees know about this process and all issues are addressed and followed up on.

    In this particular case, letting employees know about the project, letting them know that it is safe but that there will be an unpleasant smell and asking employees to let you know if they have any sensitivity or concerns to that you can work with them to minimize this would have helped. Don’t rely on employees bringing issues to you, proactively ask them and let them know that it is ok to raise concerns.

    1. Observer

      OP: If you don’t want employees to go to an outside agency to report concerns, your company should have an internal mechanism that enable employees to report concerns outside of their immediate chain of management. Make sure employees know about this process and all issues are addressed and followed up on.

      This is an EXCELLENT idea, and one that should be available for all types of issues, and not just potential safety issues. (In fact, if you don’t have such a mechanism in place for issues of harassment related to protected classes, you are almost guaranteed to lose your case. eg You CANNOT make someone route a complaint of sexual harassment through her supervisor if the supervisor is the accused harasser or good buddies with the harasser.)

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Not only that, but if you DO have such a process and the employee didn’t use it, it’s in many cases a defense to the complaint that will help you win the case.

    2. BananaPants

      Yes, my employer has an ombudsman program with a third party/neutral avenue for reporting that is outside the management structure. It can be used for reporting ethics violations (bribes/kickbacks), safety issues, concerns about management, anything. It even allows for anonymous reporting. I have never personally used it but it’s nice to know that the program is there.

      I’d have no issue with going to our EH&S manager about something like this, but 1) I work for an employer large enough to have an EH&S manager on-site, and 2) given that safety is one of our core values, I would not fear reprisal for doing so. This really depends on the work environment. My husband’s worked in the retail world for over a decade and saw lousy managers retaliate against coworkers for reporting labor law violations or safety issues, or even for questioning a manager about a situation – when he was himself subjected to illegal labor practices he shut up and tolerated it until he could find a new job, because he knew that reporting it wouldn’t lead to anything positive.

  23. soitgoes

    One thing struck me as odd about OP’s letter. The employee (even if she was just doing it to be obnoxious) was not allowed to open windows after voicing her concerns about heavy chemical fumes. Apparently opening windows “violates store policy” and “compromises the integrity of the store.” (I would like some clarifications as to what that means exactly. Does OP sell products that cannot be exposed to cold weather? Were they worried about open doors = theft? Were customers affected by the cold?) I wonder if this wasn’t an aspect of the investigation; this store policy might have come up against the law on this one. I can see myself making an OSHA complaint if my workplace smelled of fumes and I was not allowed to open a window.

    1. soitgoes

      And I’m not blaming the OP here; it seems like the OP is trying to operate within store policy. It’s the practicality of that policy in this particular instance that strikes me as being worth discussing.

      1. Kelly L.

        I’m guessing it was theft. And you raise a good point–being allowed to open windows might be a fire safety issue, even though there was no fire at that time.

    2. Francis

      OP here- we had the doors and windows open for two weeks during freezing, snowing weather. Sorry I didn’t specify in the letter. The other employees complained they couldn’t work in the cold. The complaining employee actually came in during her days off and opened all the doors and windows. Needless to say, tempers were running high about doors open/doors closed. There was also flash flooding at the time that kept us from having all the doors open. After that, we put it in writing that open doors and windows were at the managers discretion. After the weather normalizes, we plan on changing the policy.

      1. Zillah

        Hmm. I can see how all of that would be problematic, but I think that this is also something to learn from going forward: if you’re going to get this kind of work done, you should really do it at a time where it is feasible to keep windows and/or doors open, because this puts people who are bothered between a rock and a hard place.

        1. fposte

          I don’t know if it’s that controllable, though. In my experience, you get in line and the folks who do this come when they come, so even if you plan for one of the few months where this wouldn’t be a problem in my climate, you’re likely to end up with them coming in January instead of October or July instead of April. I also think it’s probably easier to more effectively accommodate the few folks who are bothered than to rejig the entire process.

          1. Natalie

            IME it really depends on who is planning the work. Whomever is writing the contract and paying the bill can probably successfully insist it only be done at a certain time (we do this constantly). But if the home office is scheduling this they probably don’t care that much, and might even be thousands of miles away and not know what the weather is like in OP’s area.

            1. fposte

              Right, and how the business functions, etc. I’d have no control at all over timing.

              And you also need to factor in what’s least disruptive to the customers, too. I’m not saying that impact on employees isn’t worth considering, but when you’re talking about something that isn’t toxic when handled by easily achievable OSHA standards and isn’t a problem for the majority of workers, that’s not going to be the main factor in the planning.

          2. Elizabeth West

            Good point. The contractors probably have really busy schedules when the weather is better. This may have been the only time they could book such a large job.

      2. soitgoes

        That’s the thing though – you can put anything in writing, but that doesn’t make it gospel. Thousands of companies type up employee handbooks that are full of illegal nonsense. This is after the fact (and it seems like a minor point, but it could very easily become an issue), but I’m not sure you can tell employees that they don’t have the right to open a window when you admit there are lingering chemical fumes. You can prohibit employees from being on premises outside of their work hours, but I doubt the legality of “you are not allowed to open a window for any reason without permission.” The managers could say no, and if it’s on the record that you know there are fumes…it won’t go well.

        1. soitgoes

          And again, I’m not attacking the OP here. I’m reacting to a lot of retail managers who would call meeting and announce, “We’ve been having this issue lately, so we’ve updated the employee handbook!” with stuff that they couldn’t legally enforce…but they thought they could because they took a few minutes to type it up and print it out. It’s understandable, retail managers rarely know the ins and outs of every employment law. But when it comes to safety, you’re not allowed to just make up your own rules. THESE fumes were apparently safe, but the next time an employee smells a different kind of potentially dangerous fume (carbon monoxide or gas leak), you can’t have it in writing that your company refuses to let them open windows. It’s like saying, “That fire alarm was a prank, so it wasn’t wrong that we kept the fire exit locked.” You were given a pass on the nature of the fumes, but you can’t view that as permission to enact other policies without checking up on whether or not they’re legal.

          1. Mike C.

            “Please remember that it’s also company policy not to discuss salaries with your coworkers!”

      3. C Average

        Wow.

        Ideally, this would’ve been dealt with in the moment when it was happening, with a manager approaching Norma Rae ( . . . heh) and saying, “Norma, can you step into my office with me for a moment?”

        At that point, the message might be something like, “Listen, you’ve made it abundantly clear that you’re not happy with the way this place smells at the moment. We’re more than happy to move you to another location to ensure that you have a comfortable work environment, and any other employees who have issues with the smell should come to me and ask for similar accommodations. But you are not in charge here, and I cannot have you coming in on your day off and making unilateral decisions about how to deal with an issue that management already has a strategy for dealing with. That’s overstepping your role. It’s not appropriate. Going forward, I need the gossip and interference and pot-stirring to stop. I want you to speak up, directly to me or another manager, if you feel that your needs aren’t being met by the accommodations we’ve made. And I need you to leave it to management to deal with the remodel in a safe and responsive way that accommodates any other employees who have expressed to us that they, too, have issues with the way it smells in here at the moment. Are we on the same page, Norma?”

  24. Elder Dog

    If I was the OP, I’d hold a meeting announcing I was reassigning ALL the people who work in that department to elsewhere for the duration, and then say that although everything was done right last time, we are taking an extra day or a weekend or whatever to air the place out. Then I’d say I understand the smell bothers some people but not others, and I absolutely don’t want anybody to get sick or migraines or anything, and then ask for volunteers who would like to help replace the stock or whatever needs to be done. I wouldn’t offer extra pay or anything. Just the chance to help set up their department instead of working in another department.

    If I wasn’t already there during the process, I’d come down to the work area myself several times and ask out loud if anybody is having problems or needs a break.

    I’d also come down several times the first couple days after everything was “back to normal” and ask if anybody was having any problems.

    1. TCO

      It’s important, though, that the non-volunteers don’t get fewer or less preferable shifts than those willing to work in the refinished area. That would look like retaliation.

  25. Ann without an e

    You could also try making respirators an option. Most hardware stores sell them, they are not expensive, and work wonderfully at filtering out the chemicals from the air, including the smell. I wore one while I was pregnant and paranoid.

    1. OriginalEmma

      Do you mean something like an N95 respirator or just a surgical face mask? I wonder about the legality of offering that when your company doesn’t have a respiratory protection plan/program in place. Then the company might have to do fit testing, to determine which size of respirator suits which employee (they are not one-size-fits-all) and whether an employee can tolerate a respirator (e.g., they have asthma, COPD, etc.).

  26. Ask a Manager Post author

    The OP just emailed me this additional info. I suggested she come here to the comments herself, so hopefully she will, but meanwhile she said:

    “1) OSHA did come to our location and survey the space. This was over a month ago and we are still dealing with paperwork. 2) To those wondering about not wanting the doors open, I should clarify. We kept them all open for two weeks, in snow and freezing weather, along with very large fans going 24/7. Eventually all the other employees basically refused to work because it was too cold. The complaining employee would even come in on her time off and open all the doors, against the wishes if those actually working. Like I said in the letter, it was disruptive, and caused a lot of ill will between employees. We had to stop leaving the doors open because of flash flooding, and by the time the flooding was over, the smell was no longer offensive to her.”

    1. nona

      “We kept them all open for two weeks, in snow and freezing weather, along with very large fans going 24/7. Eventually all the other employees basically refused to work because it was too cold. The complaining employee would even come in on her time off and open all the doors, against the wishes if those actually working.”

      WOW.

      1. JB

        I would be so mad if I were one of the other employees. I mean, I get where she’s coming from, if she thinks the smell won’t dissipate with the doors closed, then when she shows up for her next shift, the smell will still be bad. BUT STILL.

    2. TCO

      I think it says a lot about this employee that she came in on her days off to enact her own solution to the problem after being asked to stop opening doors/windows. It sounds like management’s concerns about cold and flooding were reasonable reasons to keep the doors closed when possible. In fact, keeping the doors open caused safety and comfort problems of their own that affected a lot of employees. I still support any worker’s right to file a complaint when they fear a safety concern, even if everyone else is seemingly okay with the situation. But I think we can agree here that this employee took some unreasonable actions and it’s wise of OP to be prepared for this issue to arise again.

    3. soitgoes

      What would you suggest a reasonable employee do in a situation like this? Let’s assume that there really is an issue with the smell, and you legitimately needed the windows open, but your coworkers would rather smell fumes and be warm? Should that employee just stay home?

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        You go to your manager and say, “This is causing an issue for me; the fumes are making me sick and while I understand they’re considered safe overall, in my case I’m having a physical reaction to them. What can we do to work around this?”

      2. fposte

        I’d add that I think that’s a slightly misleading framing–it’s not that the employee legitimately needs the windows open, it’s that she legitimately needs to lessen exposure to the fumes. There are a variety of ways that that might be made to happen that aren’t opening the windows.

        1. soitgoes

          I’m actually curious as to what those methods are. I live and work in an area where fumes and gas leaks are prevalent problems. I can’t think of an option (besides opening a window) that wouldn’t involve spending money.

          1. fposte

            You’ve noted one, which is sending the employee home. The OP has noted another, which is moving the employee away from the area. There are also things like fans, respirators, etc.–and other possibilities a workplace might know of that an employee doesn’t. If you rule out options from the start you’re tying both sides’ hands and lessening the chance of a good outcome.

            1. Natalie

              There’s also adjustments you can make the to HVAC. Most modern systems have a fresh air intake, located somewhere outside the building*, and the system is set up to “change” the air every X minutes. (Obviously not every molecule will necessarily change, it just represents the cubic feet of air that’s pulled in and then exhausted out.) You can increase that refresh rate and pull more air in from the outside, although if it’s very cold this will lower the temperature of the room.

              *Pro-tip, do not locate your fresh air intake right next to a restaurant’s exhaust, or the third floor will constantly smell like fried onions.

              1. fposte

                Oh, well, there you go–that’s a great example of a thing I wouldn’t have known that could happen and that wouldn’t be an option if I locked myself into “window open or nothing.”

    4. Not So NewReader

      Many retail places I have worked, if you came in on your day off that was a huge problem. Going one step further if you came in on your day off and did work, OFF THE CLOCK, that was a write up or an automatic dismissal.

      OP, I assume you were not there when it happened, or else you would have said something.
      No way should an employee be working off the clock.
      This can be handled by informing the group that anyone who is off the clock cannot be handling any employee designated tasks, this includes controlling the inside environment through heat/ventilation/ AC/ etc.

      I am beginning to think that this person is trying to run this place and I am wondering why she has so much power.

  27. Joey

    Id meet with all affected employees in a group and tell them directly that a complaint was filed with OSHA, that everything you did, while not perfect did not violate any OSHA regs, that you’ve implented some tips from OSHA, and that your open to any other reasonable suggestions.

      1. Joey

        I know you mean well but please don’t use my username especially when it involves something Id never do-spellchecking insignificant errors

    1. soitgoes

      The new policy may violate OSHA though. You can’t keep the fire exits closed “at the management’s discretion.” The doors have to be open-able at all times.

      1. fposte

        But the OP never said this was the new policy–I think you’re overreading there. She just said that doors would have to be closed–and that’s in contradistinction to doors being literally open, not unlocked. If anything, that’s *more* OSHA compliant because it means fire doors aren’t being left open any more.

  28. Tab

    I think the key is in this: “I can’t be a mind reader for employees who cannot advocate for themselves!”

    “Speak up for yourself” could be the answer to probably at least 50% of the questions people seem to ask the manager.

    1. soitgoes

      The thing is, the employee did speak up. She CONSTATLY spoke up, but her employer didn’t like what she had to say. It doesn’t matter if she’s annoying or if her personality sucks. What she did was 100% right. She felt that her rights were being violated, and those concerns were ignored, so she called in the correct agency whose job it is to determine whether her complaint had merit. It doesn’t matter if OSHA ultimately sided with the company. Dealing with the inconvenience is a non-financial cost of doing business. I completely understand where the OP is coming from and I am aware that corporate policy is likely out of her control, but this perspective of, “How can I prevent employees from using their legal privileges to contact government agencies regarding their concerns when I ignore them?” is completely without merit. The answer is that you can’t. The situational solution is that you shut down the business until the workplace can be made safe and comfortable for everyone. Forcing employees to choose between being cold/having fresh air and being warm/smelling fumes isn’t entirely reasonable. Deciding to keep the business open at all during these sorts of renovations is a corporate financial decision that shouldn’t be made unless it can be completely avoided.

      1. Ann Furthermore

        In my view there’s a difference between “speaking up” and “complaining,” and what this person did qualifies as complaining. In fact, it goes way beyond complaining, if you read the OP’s additional comments above. She took it upon herself to come into the workplace on her own time, when she was not scheduled to be working, and open all the doors — even when people who WERE working didn’t want them opened.

        This is not a person with a legitimate safety concern, or if it was, she took it upon herself to make it her own personal crusade, which is an inappropriate and disruptive way to handle it.

        That being said, maybe the OP could have handled things differently or better. But that still doesn’t give this employee the right to impose her will on others, which is what she did by doing things like insisting that doors be left opened when the people actually working, who were directly affected, did not want them open.

        1. soitgoes

          I agree with you. I think the situation is about 1) a fussy employee who (unfortunately for everyone involved) happened to have half a point about something the government takes seriously, and 2) a retail manager who doesn’t actually have a whole lot of control or legal know-how to do anything besides react. Because now I’m factoring in the decision to change the store policy to include “THE DOORS AND WINDOWS WILL REMAIN LOCKED AT ALL TIMES UNLESS YOU CAN LOCATE A MANAGER AND OBTAIN APPROVAL” and it makes me extrapolate and wonder if the larger company structure doesn’t just suck at solving problems. They reacted to one loser employee not by showing up outside of her hours and essentially harassing her coworkers by making them uncomfortable (which is fireable) by adding possibly-illegal stuff to the store policy. This is when you notice that stuff is starting to snowball, and it’s time to whip things into shape.

        2. Mike C.

          I don’t agree with some of the actions taken by this employee, but I would never dismiss someone concerned about their personal safety as simply “complaining”.

          1. soitgoes

            Yep. Even if the employee was just amusing herself by being a pain, the fumes were real, and announcing a new policy to keep the fire exits locked at all times is the #1 way to instantly get yourself in trouble with OSHA.

            1. fposte

              The OP hasn’t said the doors, fire exits, or windows will be locked, though; I think suggesting that’s what’s going on is taking alarm farther than the situation justifies.

              1. soitgoes

                OP has stated that the store policy has been updated so that only managers are allowed to open doors and windows. I’ve worked in places where that was the policy, and it meant that lazy managers just kept all of the doors locked.

                Though I admit that, once you get past the pleasant tone of OP’s email (and the corresponding crappiness of the employee – it’s easy to take OP’s side 100% at first), I can’t be very sympathetic toward a manager who is mad that an employee went to OSHA for an issue that, as it turns out, OSHA decided was worthy of an on-site investigation (which has been stated is somewhat rare for first-time reports). That’s worth taking seriously, and the OP shouldn’t file it away as “this one annoying employee got us in trouble.”

                1. fposte

                  I think you’re reaching to suggest that because it happened to you it’s happening here. There’s really no indication that the doors are going to be locked, and I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that the OP is planning on such unsafe practices without any indication.

              1. soitgoes

                If it’s on the books that employees are not allowed to open them for any reason without a manager’s approval, I still don’t think that’s entirely Kosher. At the very least, it’ll cause that same employee to go back to OSHA and say, “What if I smell fumes and my manager doesn’t? What if I smell a gas leak and I’m told that I can’t open the door or window?”

                This employee is either fussy about the letter of the law or (more likely) knowledgeable enough about employment law to know about the fire door regulation and use it to cause more trouble. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying that the new policy has the potential to cause way more trouble.

          2. Ann Furthermore

            As I replied to your comment above though, I don’t actually think this person was motivated by a safety concern. But we will have to agree to disagree on that one.

            1. Mike C.

              It doesn’t matter what you, I or anyone else believes about this particular employee. You investigate safety issues and take them serious unless and until you have hard evidence showing that the issue doesn’t exist or the risk has been mitigated. To do otherwise would risk actual complaints falling through the cracks.

              1. Not So NewReader

                Agreed. It’s two separate concerns. If this employee has malicious motivations that can be addressed separately at a different time.

  29. Francis

    OP Here. Just to clarify a few things:
    1) We had the doors and windows open continuously and fans running for about the first two weeks. We eventually had to modify the door open/closed policy after employees threatened to leave if the door was still open. We then modified the policy to at the managers discretion or at employees request. We still had the door open sporadically and after the weather stops being horrific we will revisit the policy.
    2) The employee who was vocal about her problems with the odor was moved to another department where she herself admitted there was no smell. An offer was put forth to other employees offering to transfer them but no one else complained or requested a transfer.
    3) We were closed for three days for the floor refinishing. The floor worker himself recommended we only be closed for one. We did have all the MSDS paper work, and it is well labeled and where employees can access it.
    4) Employees were notified about the floor refinished a month in advance.

    Hopefully this clears things up a bit. I’m very sympathetic to the fact that people react the fumes differently, and I want to accommodate those with problems but also make the workplace acceptable to the majority of employees who appear to not have problems. If anyone else has specific questions I’ll be happy to answer.

    1. Francis

      And in regard to Closed/Locked, the doors were closed, not locked. Please keep in mind that we are dealing with awful weather. It’s simply not practical to have the doors wide open with snow on the ground and coming down, and I had complaints coming from every direction. It basically turned the store into an arctic ice tunnel. None of the doors were locked during business hours. I’m sorry if I didn’t include enough info at first, this was my first time submitting a question here and honestly didn’t think it would be answered.

    2. Mike C.

      How do you deal with safety at your workplace? Is it regularly discussed at your staff meetings? Is it repeatably made known that employees can come to you/other authority figures with safety issues? Is there a process in place to evaluate and mitigate safety issues once they are brought up?

      Just curious, and thanks for dropping in!

    3. Not So NewReader

      Most retail places I have worked, we were all told that if an employee was working off the clock we were to tell that employee to leave. If they did not leave we were to notify the on-duty manager/supervisor immediately. This would include doing something as simple as opening a window. We were told for purposes of transparency, if you are in the store AND off the clock do not pick up anything belonging to the company. Do not touch anything belonging to the company.
      This works well. If your people have been told this, then they need to be told again. Failure to report that individual working off the clock could lead to a write up, that is what I always heard.

      Honestly, it sounds like you have been through hell and back on this one. But I am afraid that your people need stronger leadership from you and other managers. By this, I mean boundary setting, going over basic rules/expectations and going over what each employee is responsible for. Perhaps people are working shifts that have no designated supervisor. You might want to install shift supervisors if this is the case.

      OSHA will be long gone but you could still have an employee running amok. I think that is the bigger problem.

      Under the heading of “turn-about” why not get some leaflets from OSHA or some handouts and give them to your employees. Instead of focusing on avoiding the whole OSHA thing, why not go into the thick of it. Informed people are less apt to report anything, because they feel empowered. Just a thought

  30. Patricia

    And whatever you do, DO NOT single out the employee that you assume made the complaint. There are very strict whistleblower laws within OSHA. Employees have the right to complain, and to do it anonymously. Don’t let anything you do appear to be retaliation.

  31. Not telling

    As someone who is on construction sites almost daily, I’ve had to deal with a lot of complainers over the years. About once a year, I’ll get a complaint from a tenant or neighbor when we send out the advance notices of work being done. They receive this about two weeks before any worker or material sets foot on the job site. And yet they’ll INSIST that they are having an asthma attack or migraine.

    From this, I want to add my wisdom. The brain is a powerful thing. Psychosomatic symptoms feel just as real as the real thing. That is, the fear of health problems can actually cause those exact problems. I also find that smells are a POWERFUL trigger. The smell of floor finishing can trigger bad memories of a childhood vacation, for example. And it doesn’t have to be some long lost memory. If a person is unhappy in their job, their mind can recall that smell every time they have to go to work–strongly– even when the smell is not actually present.

    Understanding all of this, however, does not mean you can ignore the problem, as a manager. I find it interesting that AAM didn’t mention this. OP, you say that the employee didn’t actually complain but instead was making snarky comments as they were working. That constitutes a complaint, whether it is through the ‘proper’ process or not. It’s something you have to deal with. Dealing with things that aren’t going ‘properly’ is in fact half of the job of being a manager. So next time don’t wait.

    I agree with AAM that talking about the refinishing process is an extremely valuable tool. Change is stressful, different routines and expectations are stressful–and these can all lead to stress-related health symptoms. Also, letting people know in advance will give them a chance to discuss accommodations they may need beforehand so that you can be prepared for what you need to do.

    And lastly, as I’m sure AAM has said many times, there’s nothing you an do to prevent all complainers or problems. There will be some people who just won’t be satisfied no matter what you do. I’ve seen employers spend millions giving their workers incredible working spaces–latest technology, all environmentally-friendly environments, beautiful, day lit, spacious….and there will actually be people who complain that they were happier with their old cramped windowless office and broken desk chair and noisy AC unit. Some people refuse to be pleased.

  32. sophiabrooks

    I was actually an employee in this situation- When I was working retail, the store was painted, while we worked, with no real ventilation, because there were no windows (we were an anchor store in the mall). It was just latex paint, so the fumes didn’t really bother anyone but me. I talked to my manager, and then walked down to Sears to get a respirator. I looked pretty silly selling children’s clothing with a big honking respirator, but it did help. They rearranged my schedule so I had the next couple of days off, because I think I was scaring the customers!

    1. Camilla Worthington

      Applause to the manager and the Sears corporation. Instead of harassing you and giving you a bad time because you had a problem, they took care of the problem. When managers treat their employees with respect and concern in that they take care of them, then many problems can be averted.

  33. Camilla Worthington

    You have no proof that the employee you suspect was the one who filed the complaint. If I had a problem and filed anonymously I would not have been so vocal. Employees have a right to a safe working environment. Some of your comments remind me of things said by girls that I went to middle school with. Employees have some rights left, you need to respect these rights as part of doing business.

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